Streak of light in Western US sky sends social media abuzz (Update)

December 23, 2015 byJacques Billeaud
Streak of light in Western US sky sends social media abuzz
A streak of light is seen over an apartment complex in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015. U.S. Military officials say the streak of light seen burning across the sky by people in three Western states was debris from a Russian rocket re-entering the atmosphere. (Gunnar Lindstrom via AP)

The body of a Russian rocket that burned up as it entered the Earth's atmosphere set off a wave of excitement on social media and fueled speculation over what caused the flash of light to shoot across the sky in the American West.

The fireball seen over Arizona, Nevada and California on Tuesday night was an SL-4 rocket body booster from Russia that launched Monday, U.S. Strategic Command spokeswoman Julie Ziegenhorn said.

U.S. and Russian officials declined to discuss the rocket's use, but experts outside the government say it was launched as part of a project to bring materials to a space station. They say the rocket's body likely detached from the craft taking items into space and burned up as it started to go out of orbit.

"It's not something people need to worry about," said David Wright, a space-debris expert who is co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

An unmanned Russian cargo ship lifted off Monday from that nation's space launch complex in Kazakhstan on a journey to the International Space Station. The craft, which carried fuel, water, food and other supplies, has since docked at the station.

People who witnessed the burning light posted photos and video on social media, with some speculating that it was a meteor.

Streak of light in Western US sky sends social media abuzz
A streak of light is seen over an apartment complex in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015. U.S. Military officials say the streak of light seen burning across the sky by people in three Western states was debris from a Russian rocket re-entering the atmosphere. (Gunnar Lindstrom via AP)

Others resorted to humor, punctuating their comments with a rocket emoji and saying the light across the sky looked Santa's sleigh. Some people expressed distrust about the U.S. government's comments on the rocket.

"I was kind of freaked out to see something like that blowing up in the air, and you don't know what it is," said Gunnar Lindstrom, who saw the streak of light as he got out of a car at his Las Vegas apartment complex.

He initially thought it was an airplane. Lindstrom, a bartender with a side business as a videographer, said his first instinct was to grab his cellphone camera.

"I was upset I couldn't grab my real camera," he said.

The flash of light is not unusual in portions of the Western United States, which offer an effective stage for sky shows.

Dark skies and few tall mountains make Nevada and northern Arizona a good spot to view the atmosphere at night, said Josh Bangle, a spokesman for the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

Light pollution over major metro areas might make such a flash of light hard to see.

The same areas got a good view of a U.S. military missile test two weeks ago in New Mexico that produced a white contrail across the sky. Officials shared details about the launch with communities hundreds of miles away to cut down on the speculation.

The debris that burned up Tuesday was part of a rocket that's frequently used in the Russian space program, according to Hannah Thoburn, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute who specializes in the internal politics of Russia and Ukraine.

She also said it wasn't something that should stir concern, but she understands why some people would distrust the government's comments on the spectacle, given the heightened tensions between the United States and Russia.

"It makes sense that people are skeptical," Thoburn said.

Explore further: Fireballs spotted over western US as Chinese rocket burns up (Update)

Related Stories

'Space junk' fireball lights up Australian sky

July 11, 2014

Australians were treated to a spectacular light show after a flaming object, believed to be space junk from a Russian booster rocket, streaked across the night sky and lit up social media.

Another fireball explodes over Russia

April 21, 2014

Why does Russia seem to get so many bright meteors? Well at 6.6 million square miles it's by far the largest country in the world plus, with dashboard-mounted cameras being so commonplace (partly to help combat insurance ...

Bright streak of light reported over California

February 17, 2013

(AP)—Hours after a meteor exploded over Russia and injured more than 1,000 people and an asteroid passed relatively close to Earth, residents in California reported seeing an unusual flash of light over the San Francisco ...

Recommended for you

Scientists solve mystery shrouding oldest animal fossils

March 25, 2019

Scientists from The Australian National University (ANU) have discovered that 558 million-year-old Dickinsonia fossils do not reveal all of the features of the earliest known animals, which potentially had mouths and guts.

Earth's deep mantle flows dynamically

March 25, 2019

As ancient ocean floors plunge over 1,000 km into the Earth's deep interior, they cause hot rock in the lower mantle to flow much more dynamically than previously thought, finds a new UCL-led study.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.