Expert skywatchers solve the Pacific Northwest meteor mystery

The collapse of a SpaceX rocket stage leads to a light show over Seattle. (Photo by Cedric Padilla)

Was it a meteor? A broken satellite? Maybe a UFO? Leave it to an astronomer to determine what caused the light show visible over much of the Pacific Northwest tonight at around 9 p.m. PT.

Jonathan McDowell, an expert satellite tracker at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, soon learned that the meteoric display was actually the disintegration of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stage left over from a launch that took place more than three weeks ago.

“The Falcon 9’s second stage of Starlink’s March 4 launch failed to cause a deorbit combustion and is now returning to orbit after 22 days” McDowell tweeted.

Fittingly, the return of a rocket stage from a Starlink satellite launch provided a moment of wonder from Seattle to Portland and beyond. After all, those satellites are manufactured at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash., And it’s conceivable that members of the Starlink team have witnessed the show.

Not long after the orbital debris burned up – innocent in all appearances – the internet burned with photos and videos of the fireworks show. Here’s a selection of images from Twitter and from friends from GeekWire:

Seattle meteor show
Here’s a close-up of the breakup seen over Seattle. (Photo by Andrew Mayzak)