Burning Space Junk Creates Mysterious Lights in California Sky

Bright streaks observed Friday were jettisoned equipment from the International Space Station re-entering Earth’s atmosphere

Computer-generated image of objects in Earth's orbit
This computer-generated image shows objects in Earth's orbit. The majority—around 95 percent—are bits of space junk. NASA ODPO

Flaming space debris re-entering Earth’s atmosphere put on a mysterious light show for onlookers in Northern California on Friday evening, reports the Associated Press’ Jennifer McDermott.

Jaime Hernandez saw the bright streaks of light in the night sky while he was celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with friends at King Cong Brewing Company in Sacramento, per the publication. Intrigued but unsure about what the group was looking at, he grabbed his phone and started recording. The brewery posted his video to Instagram with the caption: “Crazy Fireworks. This flew over the brewery tonight. What do you guys think? #UFO.”

Tempting as it might be to blame aliens, the unidentified flying objects likely have a straightforward explanation. Experts say the streaks were chunks of discarded communication equipment from the International Space Station (ISS) burning up as they re-entered the atmosphere.

“What you’re seeing is some actually very small objects releasing a lot of energy, very high up, traveling extremely fast,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, to the New York Times’ April Rubin.

The communication equipment consisted of a 683-pound antenna called the Inter-orbit Communication System-Exposed Facility. A 2009 shuttle flight transported the Japanese equipment to the ISS, where it relayed information to a satellite that then transmitted the information back to Earth. But in 2017, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) decommissioned the satellite, making the antenna obsolete.

Because it was taking up space, ISS crews jettisoned the equipment into orbit in 2020. It’s been circling the Earth ever since, until its orbit got small enough that it re-entered the atmosphere and started to break apart while traveling at roughly 17,000 miles per hour. This happens fairly frequently—however, humans may not always notice because the re-entry often occurs over the ocean, McDowell tells KMPH’s Sophia Lesseos.

In this case, the flaming space junk came back to Earth in what’s known as an uncontrolled re-entry, meaning that the burned-up bits of equipment landed randomly. These specific pieces are thought to have touched down somewhere around Yosemite National Park, where they’ll likely blend in with other non-space litter.

“I’m guessing somewhere in the Yosemite area there might be a few melted, mangled pieces of Japanese space equipment littering the ground,” McDowell tells KMPH.

Though it doesn’t always put on such a dazzling show, space junk is increasingly becoming a problem. Trillions of pieces of “orbital debris” are traveling at high speeds in Earth’s vicinity, and the overall amount of space junk is growing, according to NASA. Though much of this junk is tiny, it’s moving so fast that it could damage a spacecraft or satellite on impact.

“Even tiny paint flecks can damage a spacecraft when traveling at these velocities,” according to NASA.

Space junk includes abandoned launch vehicles, defunct spacecraft, debris from various missions and dead satellites. When those items collide, they break down into even smaller fragments of debris that are more difficult to track. Several organizations track space debris, including the U.S. Department of Defense, to keep an eye out for any potentially dangerous collisions. The ISS can even perform debris avoidance maneuvers to get out of the path of destructive space junk.

Experts say the problem will only get worse in the future, with more than 50,000 additional satellites expected to launch and begin orbiting the Earth by 2030, reports the Guardian’s Ian Sample. As a result, some scientists and industry figures are calling for a legally binding global treaty that would require satellite manufacturers and users to clean up their debris and responsibly dispose of space hardware they no longer want to use. They likened space junk to pollution in the world’s oceans and argued that humans should be more proactive about keeping space clean for future generations.

“Humanity needs to take responsibility for our behaviors in space now, not later,” said Melissa Quinn, head of Spaceport Cornwall, the first horizontal launch site in the United Kingdom, in a statement.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.