Space Debris Caught On Video Burning Up In The Atmosphere

What appeared to be meteors in the sky above California were actually abandoned ISS space debris from 2020.

By Jessica Scott | Published

space debris

What’s that in the sky? It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman! Sorry to disappoint you, but it’s none of those things: it’s actually just burning space debris jettisoned by the International Space Station, according to The Byte

As you can see in the Twitter video above, the Northern California skies were alight on Friday, March 17th as what looked like meteors streaked through them. Sacramento residents were amazed to see the light show above them, not guessing at first that it could just be space debris.

As the New York Times posted on their Twitter page, the fast-moving lights in the night sky were not something from another planet a la Star Trek, but were instead pieces of communications equipment that had been sent off into space by the crew aboard the International Space Station. 

According to The Byte, that collection of what basically amounts to electronic space trash was actually pushed out of the ISS way back in 2020. What is now space debris was once a Japanese communications package called the ICS-EF, which was used to send data between the ISS Kibo module and Mission Control Tsukuba. Since it was defunct and no longer useful on board, it was shoved off into space by a robot arm called Canadarm-2. 

The big hunk of space debris originally weighed more than 700 pounds. Once it was off the space station, it floated around in space for three years, orbiting Earth as “space junk.” Then, at 3:30 PDT, it entered the Earth’s atmosphere above California. 

By astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell’s estimate, most of the space debris likely burned up during reentry. If any debris survived its plunging through the Earth’s scalding atmosphere, it most likely would reach the Yosemite area. 

international space station (1)
The International Space Station

As strange as this whole thing may seem, the ejection of space debris into the galaxy isn’t really that big of a deal. McDowell says that discarded equipment often makes its way back down through the Earth’s atmosphere and lights up the sky like a shooting star, but it is not always noticed by those on the ground. For this reason, most people usually see the event as a big, beautiful deal, even if for McDowell, “It’s just another Tuesday.”

Regardless of the fact that space debris being responsible for this phenomenon is pretty well known by now, commenters on Twitter are still having fun suggesting conspiracy theories. How do we know they weren’t more Chinese spy balloons? How do we know they weren’t aliens? Because according to “Zack ‘Buy My Book…Please’ Hunt”, it is “Pretty obvious this is a parade of aliens.”

Other commenters used the Twitter posts’ comment sections as a platform to discuss whether this sort of incident will cause the U.S. and China to start reconsidering their habit of just letting space debris fall where it may (spoiler alert: probably not). But then a few more users insisted that there is a more logical explanation for the entire thing: Transformers. You know, robots in disguise?

Whether the majority of Twitter users are buying it or not, though, it seems pretty clear that we can chalk this latest light show up to space debris. Or, at least, that’s what the aliens want us to think, anyway…