Mount Shasta woman photographs lights in sky, seen throughout California
Northern Californians were treated to a show late last Friday evening when bright lights streaked across the sky.
People from Siskiyou County to Sacramento and San Francisco Bay Area reported seeing the lights and stirred speculation as to what they were on social media.
“It seemed so close, and it moved super, super slow, like hot air balloons,” said Johanna Altorfer of Mount Shasta, who managed to shoot a photo of the object at 9:30 p.m. before it vanished on the horizon. “It was majestic. It seemed only a quarter mile away, by Interstate 5” at Mount Shasta. "It looked like it was floating."
The object partially burned up in Earth’s atmosphere while Altorfer went to her car to grab her camera.
“It floated so softly and beautifully,” she said. “I thought it might be a comet” but “it looked like it went down near Highway 89 and I-5.”
But it wasn’t a comet, and its closeness was an optical illusion.
And it wasn’t really floating. It was blasting into Earth’s atmosphere at thousands of miles per hour.
The streak was a piece of space junk breaking up and burning in Earth’s atmosphere, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell told the Associated Press. The 683-pound “communications package that relayed information from the International Space Station” was ejected from the station in 2020. Scientists knew it would burn in Earth's atmosphere.
And burn it did. It took less than a minute to break up and incinerate, eyewitnesses on social media said.
Such will likely be the fate of the International Space Station itself, according to NASA. The agency posted in February 2022 that it will eventually end the station’s life with “a controlled targeted deorbit into a remote ocean area,” during which it will smack into the planet’s atmosphere and “burn, break up, and vaporize into fragments of various sizes.” While fragments may make it to Earth, they will land in the most remote parts of ocean areas, far away from people.
As of 2022, NASA announced plans to eventually bring the space station home at Point Nemo, a location between Chile and New Zealand, about 2,688 kilometers from the nearest land, according to NASA. That particular light show won’t likely happen until the early 2030s.
Because the Earth is curved, material that burns up in, or pushes through, Earth’s atmosphere may appear close. But usually it’s just slipping below our view, just like a ship sailing far away from land will often appear to sink below the horizon ― from the hull, then up to the top of the mast. The process reverses as a ship returns to port. For more information on this illusion, see the Library of Congress’ website at bit.ly/42qAGHM.
Space junk is a real problem, according to NASA. "More than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris ― are tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network sensors." The agency said more tiny bits too small for tracking are "in the near-Earth space environment."
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And the amount of debris is rising, the agency said.
Because the debris and spacecraft travel around 15,700 mph, any impact "could create big problems," NASA said.
The fact that it was common space junk didn't mar her enjoyment of it, Altorfer said. “It doesn’t matter what it was. It was marvelous.”
Jessica Skropanic is a features reporter for the Record Searchlight/USA Today Network. She covers science, arts, social issues and news stories. Follow her on Twitter @RS_JSkropanic and on Facebook. Join Jessica in the Get Out! Nor Cal recreation Facebook group. To support and sustain this work, please subscribe today. Thank you.
This article originally appeared on Redding Record Searchlight: California woman captures lights in sky that was space junk near I-5