Streak of light across night sky is reentry of decaying Chinese rocket, defense officials say

A streak of light seen bursting across the night sky late Wednesday was a Chinese rocket that reentered the atmosphere near California, the U.S. Strategic Command confirmed.

The visual streak was the remnants from a Chinese CZ-7 rocket, which reentered the atmosphere over Northern America near California at 9:36 Pacific time, said department spokesman Lt. Colonel Martin L. O'Donnell. So far, there have been no reports of damage.

The rocket was one of 16,000 man-made objects that the Joint Space Operations Center tracks in Earth’s orbit, he said.

The objects usually die off in the atmosphere, which O’Donnell said would explain the glowing trail seen by many. In instances when an object does land, it’s usually over water, he said.

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The rocket, he said, did not pose a threat.

From witness accounts, the streak was spotted in Nevada, Utah and across California -- and perhaps elsewhere.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., told The Times that the Chinese rocket launched June 25.

The launch of the Long March 7 rocket last month heralded a new era in Chinese rocketry, McDowell said. 

After a month in low orbit, it reentered the atmosphere and was probably traveling about 18,000 mph, he said.

When those on the ground spotted the trail of light, it was probably about 50 miles overhead, he added.

The main body probably melted, but he said a few small pieces of metal may eventually reach the ground.

The streak of light coincides with the Delta Aquarid meteor shower, which usually peaks about July 28 or 29.

The light show recalled an incident in late December 2015, when debris from a Russian rocket that was returning into Earth’s atmosphere lit up the skies across the Western U.S. 

Fireball events occur almost nightly somewhere on Earth, but they are not usually seen over populated areas, according to Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office.

McDowell agreed that although reentry is common, such dramatic visibility is not.

“Something this big enters in an uncontrolled way probably once a month,” McDowell said, although he later clarified that it probably occurs once per year.

Across social media platforms, witnesses eagerly documented the unusual sight:

For more news in California, follow @MattHjourno.

Click here for a Spanish version of this story

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UPDATES:

July 28, 6:15 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from U.S. Strategic Command.

July 27, 11:10 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Jonathan McDowell.

This article was originally published at 10:30 p.m.

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