Sunday, October 17News That Matters

SpaceX Rocket Debris Seen Over Seattle and Portland, Astronomers Say

The mysterious bright lights streaking across the Pacific Northwest’s night sky on Thursday were not planes or meteors, but debris from a SpaceX rocket.

That’s what the experts said, at least. But not everyone got the memo, so there was plenty of confusion.

“We have been getting a number of calls about this!” the Portland office of the National Weather Service said on Twitter.

It added moments later — with the caveat that it was no expert in rocket science — that the “widely reported bright objects in the sky” appeared to be debris from a SpaceX rocket that “did not successfully have a deorbit burn.”

A “deorbit burn” is the technical term for when a spaceship rotates tail-first and fires its rockets before re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, wrote on Twitter that what people saw in the Pacific Northwest on Thursday night was part of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that had launched in early March. The debris was re-entering the atmosphere after 22 days in orbit, he said.

Falcon 9 rockets have been carrying cargo and satellites into space for years. 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 junk” visible over Seattle was the result of a breakup that happened about 30 miles above where airplanes fly. The Falcon 9 debris falling to earth was “unlikely to be major,” he added, and would most likely fall in the Rocky Mountains near the Canadian border.

SpaceX launches happen regularly in California, Texas and Florida. So for some Americans, it is now a normal — or at least normal-ish — thing to see unidentified rockets, 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 spectacle on Thursday night seemed to inspire more delight and bewilderment than fear.

One user grumbled that she had somehow missed it. Another marveled at how astronomers on the internet had managed to solve the mystery so quickly, even as a ship remained stuck in the Suez Canal for days.

Others took the opportunity to needle Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX.

“Ummm… just caught this flying over my home in SW Portland,” one Twitter user, Vince LaVecchia, wrote just after 9 p.m. local time. “@elonmusk Your rocket?”

The SpaceX Twitter feed had not weighed in on the Pacific Northwest’s mystery light show as of early Friday morning. Neither had Mr. Musk or NASA. The California-based company could not be immediately reached for comment.

But National Weather Service staff stayed up late tweeting their astronomical impressions — and they seemed to be having fun.

“A bit anticlimactic given the events of the evening, but the Orion Nebula looks beautiful tonight from our roof,” the agency’s Seattle office wrote, referring to a constellation. “Yet another satellite managed to photobomb the shot.”

Mike Baker and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting.