The mysterious bright lights that shot across the Pacific Northwest night sky on Thursday weren’t planes or meteors, but debris from a SpaceX rocket.
At least that’s what the experts said. But not everyone got the memo, so there was a lot of confusion.
“We’ve gotten some phone calls about this!” the office of the National Weather Service in Portland said on Twitter
Moments later, it added – with the caveat that it was not an expert in rocket science – that the “widely reported bright objects in the sky” appeared to be debris from a SpaceX rocket that “failed to successfully deorbit burn.”
A “deorbit burn” is the technical term for when a spaceship first turns its tail and fires its rockets before reentering Earth’s atmosphere.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University, wrote on Twitter that what people saw in the Pacific Northwest Thursday night was part of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched in early March. The debris re-entered the atmosphere after 22 days in orbit, he said.
Falcon 9 missiles have carried cargo and satellites years into space. SpaceX used a Falcon 9 last year when it became the first private company to launch astronauts into orbit.
Mr. McDowell wrote that the “space debris” visible over Seattle was the result of a rupture that occurred about 30 miles above where planes fly. The debris from the Falcon 9 that fell to Earth was “probably not large,” he added, and would most likely fall into the Rocky Mountains near the Canadian border.
SpaceX launches take place regularly in California, Texas and Florida. So for some Americans now it’s a normal – or at least normal – thing to see unidentified missiles, or their debris, whizzing overhead.
But for people in the Pacific Northwest, it’s still pretty weird and disorienting.
In the Seattle and Portland areas, the Thursday night spectacle seemed to elicit more joy and bewilderment than fear.
One user grumbled that she somehow missed it. Another wondered how astronomers on the internet had managed to solve the mystery so quickly, even when a ship got stuck in the Suez Canal for days.
Others took the opportunity to spray Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO.
“Ummm… I just saw this flying over my home in SW Portland,” wrote a Twitter user, Vince LaVecchia, just after 9:00 p.m. local time.@Elon Musk Your missile? “
The SpaceX Twitter feed had not affected the mysterious Pacific Northwest light show as of Friday morning. Neither did Mr. Musk or NASA. The California-based company could not be immediately reached for comment.
But the National Weather Service employees stayed up late on their astronomical impressions – and they seemed to be having fun.
“A little anti-climax given the events of the evening, but the Orion Nebula looks beautiful from our rooftop tonight,” the Seattle office wrote, referring to a constellation. “Yet another satellite managed to capture the photo.”
Mike Baker and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting.