Space station’s discarded trash rained fire in California sky

Jeff Watters and his friends weren’t sure what to make of the streaking lights that darted across the Sacramento night sky late Friday.

About seven meteor-like flames appeared to shoot up around 9:30 p.m., drawing attention away from the ongoing St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, according to video taken by Watters.

“It looked crazy,” Watters said in a written statement to The Times. “We thought it might be some Starlink or SpaceX thing or something, but that didn’t really make sense.”

The spectacle turned out to be caused by flaming “orbital debris,” which Smithsonian astronomer Jonathan McDowell says has been re-entering Earth’s atmosphere over northern California after years of orbiting the Earth since being ejected from the International Space Station in 2020.

“We knew this object was going to reenter sometime this weekend, but we didn’t know exactly when,” McDowell said — or where, for that matter.

Orbiting at 17,000 miles per hour, it’s difficult to accurately track such “space debris,” he said, meaning this type of debris — the aftermath of launches or left behind by space exploration — returns to the atmosphere fairly regularly become known as “uncontrolled re-entry”. But, he said, the US Space Force is tracking thousands of such items, and when the dazzling display was spotted in skies from Sacramento to Fresno on Friday, he was able to match the event to space debris.

“The light you see is the kinetic energy that’s being dissipated,” McDowell said. “It gets so hot it melts and crumbles.”

That particular device was a 683-pound communications device launched from Japan in 2009 and attached to the outside of the International Space Station, McDowell said. It relayed information back to Earth for about eight years, but became obsolete when its coordinating satellite retired. In 2020, ISS officials ejected the device from the space station and began its year-long journey back to Earth, he said.

McDowell surmised that the molten equipment discovered in northern California probably fell near Yosemite National Park.

Though the phenomenon caused wonder and awe throughout Northern California, McDowell pointed out that there were at least two other pieces of space junk that also reentered the atmosphere in recent days, albeit in locations that likely went unnoticed.

“I get a report like this from somewhere in the world every few months,” he said. “They are rare in one place but common on a global scale.”

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 200 pieces of space junk re-enter the atmosphere each year, although many burn up and decay completely upon re-entry, and most fall unnoticed into the ocean.

“Every day, the Space Force tracks over 20,000 pieces in orbit around Earth,” McDowell said, although he noted that about 7,000 of those are working satellites. “This object is just one of the 20,000 that re-entered this weekend and re-entered at a time and place where it was seen by many people.”

As such space debris becomes more prevalent, McDowell said, so does the likelihood that such debris could fall in dangerous ways — hitting people or critical infrastructure — although those chances are still slim. He said he would like to see more safety precautions from teams launching such devices, especially when the debris could contain larger pieces.

China has been criticized for launching a new rocket whose launcher crashed back to earth uncontrolled. The rocket booster has landed without incident so far, but experts fear it won’t always be the case.

“Every time they… launch one of these, it’s kind of like orbital roulette,” McDowell said. “The odds are in their favor, but not so much that I’m not worried.”

There are ways to control and plan the re-entry of objects into the atmosphere, which many teams around the world are using. Space station’s discarded trash rained fire in California sky

Alley Einstein

Alley Einstein is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Alley Einstein joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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