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US military says 'fireballs' spotted over Texas are not related to satellite collision

Monday, February 16, 2009

The United States military Strategic Command (STRATCOM) has said that the 'fireballs' spotted over areas of Texas in the United States on Sunday February 15, are not related to the collision of a U.S. and Russian satellite in space. According to spaceweather.com, NASA says the object was a meteor.

"There is no correlation between the debris from that collision and those reports of re-entry," said STRATCOM military spokeswoman Major Maj. Regina.

"It's a natural meteor, definitely," said Bill Cooke, an astronomer at NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office.

On Tuesday, February 10, the American civilian communications satellite Iridium 33, launched in 1997, and the defunct Russian military communications satellite Kosmos-2251, launched in 1993, collided over Siberia. On Friday February 13, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued an alert for falling debris from the satellites, following reports of "explosions and earthquakes" along with "flashes in the sky" in Jackson and Louisville, Kentucky.

Then again on Sunday, calls to 9-1-1 began to come in to Williamson County, Texas sheriff's office around 12:30 p.m. (Central time) that burning debris and fireballs were seen falling from the sky onto parts of Austin, Houston, Waco and San Antonio.

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"The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported to local law enforcement on Friday that these events are being caused by falling satellite debris. These pieces of debris have been causing sonic booms, resulting in vibrations felt by some residents, as well as flashes of light across the sky," said the NOAA on Friday in an public information alert posted on their website. The FAA says the burning material over Texas is not related to this alert.

"We don't know what it was [over Texas]," said Roland Herwig, a spokesman for the FAA on Monday. The alerts still remain in effect in Kentucky until further notice.

Residents in Texas reported their homes and windows shaking and large explosions on Sunday morning. After a search of several areas, the Williamson county sheriff's office reported that no debris or impact sites were found. Earlier unconfirmed reports had said the debris could have been the result of a small plane exploding.

There was previous speculation was that the object in Texas could have been a meteor. Doctor Marco Ciocca, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University told WKYT on Sunday that it's too early for the debris from the satellites to be reentering the planet's atmosphere. "[It could] be months" before any of the satellite wreckage enters the earth's atmosphere. "The debris doesn't simply fall out of its orbit. It will either vaporize or stay in orbit for some time before falling into earth's atmosphere."

However, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said on February 12 that the debris could have taken 10 days or less to reenter over portions of the planet.

"Within 24 hours of the collision, the U.S. space tracking system had identified 600 pieces of debris. This large number suggests that the collision must have been relatively head-on. If the two satellites hit head-on, rather than a glancing blow, the energy of the collision would completely disintegrate both satellites into clouds of debris," said the UCS in a statement on their website who also added that the collision took place in "the same region of space where China destroyed a defunct Chinese weather satellite with an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon" in 2007. "That January 2007 test created a massive amount of debris." There have been at least eight major satellite collisions since 1991.

The satellites, both of which had a mass in excess of 450 kilograms, and were traveling at approximately 17,500 miles per hour (28,150 km/hour), collided 491 miles (790 km) above the earth. Scientists say the explosion caused by the collision was massive. They are still trying to determine just how large the crash was and how the earth will be affected. STRATCOM continues to track the debris. The results of a plotting analysis will be posted to a public website.

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External links

  • Space Weather (Article in relation to fireball on front page. Retrieved: February 16, 2009 at 9:06 a.m. EST.