A video of a fireball streaking across the sky likely shows a Chinese rocket section that burned up in the atmosphere above Texas earlier this month.
The reentry of the Chinese Long March 2D rocket's second stage was first reported by U.S. Naval Institute (USNI) News on March 9. According to USNI News, the four-ton rocket section entered the atmosphere above the southwestern corner of Texas at a speed of 17,000 mph (27,400 kph) at approximately 9:30 p.m. CST on March 7 (0230 GMT on March 8) after falling from low Earth orbit. U.S. Space Command later issued a statement to USNI confirming the reentry.
Following the event, a Space.com reader emailed us with photographs and videos of a fiery streak in the atmosphere that were filmed in southern Texas at the same time as the Chinese rocket body's reentry. The images and videos certainly appear to show a piece of debris burning up in Earth's atmosphere consistent with previous rocket stage reentry events, although as with any purely photographic evidence, it's difficult to conclusively identify what exactly they may or may not depict.
Still, after reviewing the available information, astronomer and space launch tracker Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told Space.com that the video is "likely the reentering rocket stage."
Related: Chinese rocket stage crashes to Earth over Texas
The videos and images were taken by Kylie McMillan, a student from Waco, Texas, while camping in the Boquillas Canyon in southern Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border.
"I went on a spring break trip with a group of other students when I spotted this in the sky," McMillan told Space.com. "It was moving fairly quickly, and I believe we only saw it for approximately 30-45 seconds before it broke apart in the atmosphere. When I first saw it appear over the canyon, it was a bright orange/red but as it kept falling it got smaller and dimmer."
McMillan included metadata from the image above, showing it was taken at 9:33 p.m. CST on March 7.
Spent Chinese rocket stages are notorious for falling back to Earth in these uncontrolled reentries, sometimes drawing criticism from leaders of other space agencies.
The most unfortunate such events involve the roughly 22-ton first stage of the Long March 5B rocket, which China has used to build its Tiangong space station in low Earth orbit. Long March 5B cores are not designed to be safely ditched into the ocean after delivering their payloads or reused, as in the case of many newer rocket designs like the SpaceX Falcon 9.
While no damage was caused by the March 7 event, the reentry of this Chinese rocket stage over Texas "reinforces the need for better international norms regarding high-risk uncontrolled reentries," U.S. Space Command told USNI News.
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