Skip to main content

Fireball as Russian space junk 'belly flops' to Earth above Australia

July 11, 2014 -- Updated 2202 GMT (0602 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Fireball seen shooting through sky above southern Australia Thursday night
  • Astronomers said it was third-stage of Soyuz rocket which launched on July 8
  • Fireball was object re-entering atmosphere, creating a fiery tail

(CNN) -- A fireball the size of a small truck, which shot through the sky over Australia Thursday night, was space junk from Russia's Soyuz rocket, astronomers said.

More accurately, it was "object 40077," the third stage of the Soyuz rocket which was launched from Kazakhstan on Tuesday.

It was hurtling around the Earth at some 18,000 mph, or almost 29,000 kilometers per hour.

"What you're seeing in that fireball is it slowing down really fast. It's belly-flopping on the world's atmosphere at 18,000 miles an hour. That really hurts," said Jonathan McDowell, astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Residents who saw the fireball initially guessed it was a meteor. Some feared it was a plane crash and called emergency services. Photos started popping on Twitter with the hashtag #meteor.

"Just saw the biggest meteor I've ever seen, going all way across the sky heading North, amazing!" Justin Nicholas tweeted.

Steven Wright: \
Steven Wright: "At first I thought it was a low-flying jet with some wild vapor trails, because it was moving that fast."

Steve Wright was on the rooftop of a car park trying to take a photo of the Melbourne Star -- the city's giant Ferris wheel -- when he saw the fireball streaking through the sky.

"I had no idea what it was, and at first I thought it was a low flying jet with some wild vapor trails, because it was moving that fast," he told CNN. "But because there was no sound, and it didn't make sense to see a vapor tail it behind the plane at night, I knew it had to be something else."

While the fireball came as a surprise to residents, McDowell said astronomers had an early warning.

Russia launched its Soyuz rocket on July 8 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, carrying the Meteor-M2 weather satellite and other smaller satellites.

The projected path of the third stage of the rocket showed it moving northbound between Melbourne and Canberra.

"They're not usually seen because most of the Earth is either ocean -- or very sparsely inhabited. And of course, if it comes down in the daytime, you may not notice as easily," McDowell said.

"You get reports like this a few times a year. Maybe once or twice a year, but it happens much more often."

One user on Twitter couldn't let the relatively rare opportunity pass without using it as an excuse to join the latest meme involving Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

The Australian leader released an image earlier this week striking a pose with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Around 1,000 of these types of space junk have re-entered orbit since the start of the space age, McDowell said.

"It's possible that some of the pieces might reach the ground but most of it would melt away."

Part of complete coverage on
Science news
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1934 GMT (0334 HKT)
Nichelle Nichols has spent her whole life going where no one has gone before, and at 81 she's still as sassy and straight-talking as you'd expect from an interstellar explorer.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1152 GMT (1952 HKT)
The world's largest flying aquatic insect, with huge, nightmarish pincers, has been discovered in China's Sichuan province.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1210 GMT (2010 HKT)
As fans of "Grey's Anatomy," "ER" and any other hospital-based show can tell you, emergency-room doctors are fighting against time.
May 29, 2014 -- Updated 1159 GMT (1959 HKT)
Ask 100 robotics scientists why they're inspired to create modern-day automatons and you may get 100 different answers.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
From the air, the Namibian desert looks like it has a bad case of chicken pox.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 1643 GMT (0043 HKT)
The trend for nature-inspired designs has spread across industries from crab-style deep-sea vessels to insect-inspired buildings.
May 25, 2014 -- Updated 1222 GMT (2022 HKT)
Consider it the taxonomist's equivalent of a People magazine's Most Beautiful List.
May 9, 2014 -- Updated 1532 GMT (2332 HKT)
For the first time, scientists have shown it is possible to alter the biological alphabet and still have a living organism that passes on the genetic information.
May 5, 2014 -- Updated 1148 GMT (1948 HKT)
Do we really want to go the route of "Jurassic Park"?
May 2, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Catch a train from the sky! Perhaps in the future, the high-rise superstructures could help revolutionize the way we travel.
May 5, 2014 -- Updated 1458 GMT (2258 HKT)
In a nondescript hotel ballroom last month at the South by Southwest Interactive festival, Andras Forgacs offered a rare glimpse at the sci-fi future of food.
March 20, 2014 -- Updated 1412 GMT (2212 HKT)
For a Tyrannosaurus rex looking for a snack, nothing might have tasted quite like the "chicken from hell."
March 14, 2014 -- Updated 2229 GMT (0629 HKT)
Everyone is familiar with Tyrannosaurus rex, but humanity is only now meeting its much smaller Arctic cousin.
March 6, 2014 -- Updated 1712 GMT (0112 HKT)
At about 33 feet long, weighing 4 to 5 tons and baring large blade-shaped teeth, the dinosaur Torvosaurus gurneyi was a formidable creature.
February 21, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
This Pachyrhinosaurus can go to the head of its class.
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1204 GMT (2004 HKT)
Science is still trying to work out how exactly we reason through moral problems, and how we judge others on the morality of their actions. But patterns are emerging.
February 28, 2014 -- Updated 0006 GMT (0806 HKT)
A promising way to stop a deadly disease, or an uncomfortable step toward what one leading ethicist called eugenics?
February 15, 2014 -- Updated 0107 GMT (0907 HKT)
Seattle paleontologists safely removed the largest fossilized mammoth tusk discovered in the region from a construction site.
April 23, 2013 -- Updated 1013 GMT (1813 HKT)
A mysterious, circular structure, with a diameter greater than the length of a Boeing 747 jet, has been discovered submerged about 30 feet underneath the Sea of Galilee in Israel.
January 17, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Every corner of the planet offers some sort of natural peculiarity with an explanation that makes us wish we'd studied harder in junior high Earth science class.
November 14, 2013 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Deep in a remote, hot, dry patch of northwestern Australia lies one of the earliest detectable signs of life on the planet, tracing back nearly 3.5 billion years, scientists say.
September 4, 2013 -- Updated 1910 GMT (0310 HKT)
We leave genetic traces of ourselves wherever we go -- in a strand of hair left on the subway or in saliva on the side of a glass at a cafe.
ADVERTISEMENT