The ‘meteor swarm’ is actually a Chinese rocket falling out of orbit

The “meteor swarm” that lit up the skies over northern Western Australia earlier this week was, in fact, the wreckage of a Chinese rocket that fell out of orbit.

Streaks of light illuminated the sky above Broome in the early hours of Monday morning, and sound bangs echoed through the city.

Several locals captured the moment in videos posted on social media that showed debris broken and streaked across the night sky around 12:30 on Monday.

Glen Brough said he was awake after a police chase near his house when he saw the light show, but thought the wreckage was a rocket or flare.

“I was sitting in the driveway with my partner … and she said, ‘What is it?’ And the sky was just lit, fully lit,” he said.

“We honestly thought they were rockets.”

Light show caused by space debris

Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told ABC that the light show was created by a piece of the Chinese Long March 3 rocket, which disintegrated into the atmosphere.

The rocket stage was launched in July last year and left in geostationary orbit until, according to Dr. McDowell eventually did not fall back to the ground as his orbit plunged into the atmosphere.

“It [the rocket] he launched a communications satellite called Tian Lian, which is actually a transmission satellite used by Chinese astronauts on the Chinese space station, “he said.

Dr. Based on publicly available data from the United States Space Command, which monitors space debris in Earth’s orbit, McDowell has plotted a missile stage return path for ABC.

“The route has shown that it leads east through the entry point directly through Broome and through Northern Australia, so both direction and timing are correct,” said Dr. McDowell.

The estimated route of the wreckage across the skies of northern Western Australia.(Added by: Dr Johnathan McDowell)

Kimberley astronomer Greg Quicke said the slow pace of the bars captured in the footage suggests it is space debris.

“It feels like space debris coming into the atmosphere, and I say that because of their speed,” Mr. Quicke said.

Dr McDowell said it was possible that some fragments of the rocket that had burned over Broome might even have returned to Earth in Western Australia.

“Just a few weeks ago, we had another Chinese missile stage that crashed over Gujarat in India, and parts of that stage survived,” he said.

“It’s not impossible that you could find the same thing in Western Australia; only a few small pieces of the rocket can survive re-entry and end up on the ground.”

This re-entry observation comes just months after another piece of a Chinese rocket, used in another mission, hits the far side of the moon.

Picture of streaks of fire burning through the night sky
Parts of a Chinese rocket burned in the atmosphere above Broome on Monday night, and a loud rumble could be heard around the city.(Supplied by: Tasha Thomson)

Space debris is a growing problem

According to Dr. McDowell is a Long March 3 missile in China, a widely used “pull” of the older generation, which is to be replaced in the future by a larger Long March 5B missile.

The 5B Long March is a potential problem, said Dr. McDowell, because it leaves a larger rocket stage in orbit, which in the past led to the collapse of large objects on cities in Africa.

“This 20-ton rocket stage once again re-entered West Africa and 20-meter-long metal rods crashed into villages in West Africa,” said Dr. McDowell.

Astronomer Hadrien Devillepoix of Curtin University said space agencies have always sought re-entry in uninhabited areas, so it is rare to see them captured on video.

“The South Pacific, for example, is usually one of the preferred graveyard areas for spacecraft, but occasionally things like Skylab appear that have crashed over Western Australia,” he said.

The wreckage of the crashed Skylab space station on a truck in Kalgoorlie, 1979.
A piece of Skylab on a truck body in Kalgoorlie after it crashed over South WA in 1979.(State Library of Western Australia)

Locals, who posted footage of part of the rocket’s return, heard loud noises, with Mr Brough confirming that they had spread around the city a minute after the light show.

“I reckon every dog ​​in Broome started barking. Then it was just a dog eruption and yes, it was actually quite scary,” he said.

According to Dr. Devillepoix, these may have been hypersonic bangs caused by objects that re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere and break through the sound barrier.

“It’s basically the same sound you hear if you happen to be a fighter jet going through the atmosphere hypersonically – it’s creating a fairly large shock wave,” he said.

“But it’s usually high enough in the atmosphere, so it’s usually unlikely that these shock waves will hit the ground … but it’s definitely possible.”

Despite the shockwaves and how overwhelming it was to watch the moment unfold in real time, Mr. Brough said it would stay with him for some time to come.

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