Virginia fireball was not Russian booster rocket
There has been plenty of debate today about the nature of the fireball spotted around 9:40 p.m. Sunday in the southern sky (as seen from Maryland). But I'm now convinced that it was a natural meteor, and not space debris.
Geoff Chester, spokesman for the U.S. Naval Observatory got out in front early on this story, saying he was "99.44 percent" sure the object was a Russian rocket booster, falling to Earth after the launch of the Russian Soyuz space capsule en route to the International Space Station.
I don't think so. Man-made space debris is traveling at orbital velocities, and re-enters the atmosphere at a fairly slow speed compared with meteors. We all remember the painful video images of the space shuttle Columbia breaking up on re-entry in 2003, with the loss of its crew. It is very slow compared with meteor entries.
Eyewitness descriptions of Sunday night's event said they watched this object for only a few seconds before it vanished. Here's a eyewitness comment we received this morning:
The object was 2009-015B / 34670, the SL-4 rocket body from the recent Soyuz-TMA 14 launch to ISS. Geoff Chester of the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. expressed certainty that its decay is what was seen last night, but he is mistaken: http://www.livescience.com/space/090330-rocket-debris.html
The U.S. Strategic Command's final report on this decay, predicted decay over 24 N, 125 E, [near Taiwan] on 2009 Mar 30, within 1 minute of 03:57 UTC (11:57 PM EDT).
It did pass within sight of the Virginia and Maryland Sunday night, but at about 9:26 PM EDT, about 2.5 hours before decay. It was 137 km high, but that is far too high to have begun burning. Burning begins a little below 100 km. The object was in Earth's shadow, so it was invisible, because it was not burning yet.
But clearly it was a meteor, based on its high angular velocity.
I observed a satellite decay five years ago, and the object took about 90 seconds to cross from a point low above the SW horizon to a point low in the SE.
That is much faster than a normal satellite, but nowhere near as fast a meteor, which could traverse the same angle in about one tenth the time.
TUESDAY AM UPDATE: The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California this morning adds this confirmatory note:
"The JSpOC tracks over 19,000 manmade objects in space. The "bright light"
that was reported on the East Coast on Sunday, 29 March at 9:45 p.m. EST was not a result of any trackable manmade object on reentry. Natural phenomena are not tracked by JSpOC professionals.
Stefan T. Bocchino
Deputy, 30th Space Wing Public Affairs"