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March 30, 2009

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:

"I live along the coast on the Eastern Shore of MD. I too saw this amazing fireball. From my vantage point the bright orange ball of fire just suddenly appeared at approximately 9:40 PM. It was definitely larger than a refrigerator, as reported. It fell downward and slightly east then seemed to burn out. It only lasted about 5 seconds; however, this was the most spectacular site I have ever seen!  - Jill Schline"

Dear Frank,

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:

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.

Best regards,

Ted Molczan


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"

Posted by Frank Roylance at 4:38 PM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Sky Watching


I saw this extremely bright and orange object falling towards the SE at 940 or so Sunday night. It was much more Orange than the falling stars I've seen; it also appeared larger. Best, Ned Sparrow . Lutherville

Good catch! I featured your research in my syndicated Space News column (see link). I'm a former NASA PIO and a space writer, and I don't believe in hopping on the first bandwagon that rolls into town. I, too, had my doubts about the Soyuz claim and was glad to see another viewpoint presented. Good work! - Patricia Phillips

Now this, via email:
Hi, Frank,

I’ll muddy the waters a little. I saw it turning onto Generals Highway near Annapolis (we were turning, that is – I’ll assume that it wasn’t maneuvering!). My wife saw it first, saying, “What’s that?” Then I saw it, and it lasted about three seconds from there. So maybe five seconds in all. But while it only lasted that long, it didn’t seem to be moving that fast – not nearly as fast as meteors I’ve seen. It was greenish, and seemed to be leisurely enough that I though it was a firework. It looked low, as well. The only noise we heard was WYPR through the car radio – certainly no sonic boom.

Best regards, Andy

Andrew Bienstock
Vice-President &
Program Director

I saw the fireball in the northern sky from I-85 in NC. I was near the Gibsonville exit (MP138) traveling east, when I saw it out my driver's window (9:38p). As it came down, I realized it was not a shooting star because it was too big, did not fade, and was coming down to earth. As it went behind the treeline, I fully expected to see a flash of light as it hit the ground. It was so "near", I thought it might be a meteor or perhaps a plane coming down. Dismissed the plane idea because it was so round. I was sure the town of Gibsonville would have seen it hit, but it obviously was further away than it seemed. It was white hot, with blueish flame toward the earth and forming a slight teardrop shape like a tail.
CFM -- Raleigh NC

Good thing we have absolutely no control over our own air space. I saw and heard it from Richmond. My first thought was a meteorite but it'd be nice to know if we had Russian booster rockets exploding over populated areas.

I was on Rt. 95 southbound about 1 mile before the Gunpowder River and saw the bright light at almost a 90 degree to my left, SSE. Travel route was approximately 45 degree angle above the horizon and visually appeared to travel vertically downward to an endpoint just under 20 degrees before it winked out. After it initially went out it reappeared very briefly. The object was a brilliant blue white and tailed a deep orange lengthy trail. Very unusual coloration, I am used to a bright flash with a seeming white trail

I was in Gaithersburg, MD. Out of my southern window, I saw a fireball on Sunday night. I'm not sure what the time was, but 9:40pm (as reported by others) sounds about right. I jumped off my couch and ran toward the window...I thought I was seeing a plane crash. However, the object disappeared long before reaching the ground.

Maybe it was the Koreans over-shot California!!! Ha!

I too saw the object. I was on 66 east. I have seen many meteors and this one seemed odd since it was vburnt out and then seemed to reignite as it fell behind some clouds that become very lit up by the object.

I was visiting my cousin in Virginia when we were sitting outside on deck; I noticed a bright green (like a glow stick color) ball which was about 2 in long with what seemed to be a bright orange tail attached to it about 8 or 9 inch long approx., 1 foot above her roof. Moving slow enough for my cousing to turn around on bench and catch the whole show as well as I. It was a rare and awesome scene.

I saw it while driving south on I-83, north of York, PA. I saw it through my windshield for only a few seconds before it dropped below the trees on the horizon, so I did not have time to take a photograph. It appeared to be falling very steeply, reminiscent of a ballistic missile warhead reentry, but now think that may have been a trick of perspective. From my view angle, it seemed to be traveling in a S/SSE direction on line with Baltimore. My first thought upon catching a glimpse was that it was an airliner plunging to the ground in flames, then quickly figured it was a meteor. It was so massive that I really expected to see an explosion in the distance upon probable ground impact, but saw nothing further after it dropped out of view. It put on a very impressive display, and figured others in the area must have seen/reported it as well. I checked the York/Harrisburg news sources Monday morning, quite convinced I would find a story, but nothing ... ended up hearing about the "Russian rocket booster" story only much later in the day instead. Based upon my observation, and others posted here and elsewhere, this event was clearly seen over a much wider range than originally reported (Norfolk area) ... this thing was huge, and I'm simply shocked that nothing apparently reached the ground.

My husband, my son and I saw something similar on March 31st around 10 PM in the sky about five miles from Salisbury, Maryland. We were about to turn from Route 347 in Hebron onto Route 50 when we spotted the object. It was glowing green and falling at a fast rate of speed and then it disappeared when it looked like it must have hit the ground. It was falling in a curve going from left to right. It was a rather large object that seemed to get smaller as it fell. I don't know if it was something that burned out or if it was just falling in a direction that took it further away from us. The color was similar to a neon green without any orange or red color visible as some others have seen. My husband insisted it was space debri since he had recently heard something on the news about this, but I think it may have been a meteor. Does anyone know about anything being seen on this night since I have not heard anything about this from the news or anyone else?

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About Frank Roylance
This site is the Maryland Weather archive. The current Maryland Weather blog can be found here.
Frank Roylance is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He came to Baltimore from New Bedford, Mass. in 1980 to join the old Evening Sun. He moved to the morning Sun when the papers merged in 1992, and has spent most of his time since covering science, including astronomy and the weather. One of The Baltimore Sun's first online Web logs, the Weather Blog debuted in October 2004. In June 2006 Frank also began writing comments on local weather and stargazing for The Baltimore Sun's print Weather Page. Frank also answers readers’ weather queries for the newspaper and the blog. Frank Roylance retired in October 2011. Maryland Weather is now being updated by members of The Baltimore Sun staff

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