A Russian rocket stage was spotted spectacularly burning up as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over Victoria and Tasmania on Tuesday night local time.
In a statement shared to X, formally Twitter, the Australian Space Agency suggested the fireball was probably the remains of a Soyuz-2 rocket that launched earlier that night.
“This launch [by Russia] was notified and remnants of the rocket were planned to safely re-enter the atmosphere into the ocean off the south-east coast of Tasmania,” it said.
*STATEMENT*— Australian Space Agency (@AusSpaceAgency) August 8, 2023
We have determined the flashes of light seen across Melbourne skies overnight were likely the remnants of a Russian Soyuz-2 rocket re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
[More in comments] pic.twitter.com/rmb4B5l4iL
While there was some speculation the light trail was a meteor, some tell-tale characteristics gave the object’s identity away. The fragmented nature of the re-entry, and the coloured light emitted, suggest a rocket body breaking up as it passed through the atmosphere.
And while it was likely travelling at tremendous speed, it was still moving slower than speeds typically expected of meteors.
“Space junk re-entries are sometimes confused with meteors, which are also spectacular but are usually far shorter events as they slam into the atmosphere at a much faster speed,” says Associate Professor Michael Brown, an astronomer at Monash University.
“The space junk was the upper stage of a Russian Soyuz 2 rocket, which had helped launch a Glonass navigation satellite on Monday. Another Soyuz rocket re-entered over Melbourne in 2014, and some pieces of the rocket were later found in rural New South Wales.
“Video posted on social media indicates the rocket was travelling roughly south during its re-entry and away from Melbourne. It is possible that small pieces of the rocket crashed to earth or into the sea, but it’s rare for space junk to damage property.”
Space junk is an increasing problem, with record numbers of space launches every day and some authorities yet to mandate controlled re-entry protocols. The European Space Agency estimates more than 10,900 tonnes of space junk – the equivalent weight of the Eiffel Tower – is currently orbiting the Earth.
Last year, Canadian researchers indicated there was a 10% chance of someone on Earth being hit by space junk this decade.