WASHINGTON — A fireball shooting across the sky Tuesday night surprised people from Annapolis, Maryland, to Warrenton and Fredericksburg, Virginia, and in between.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this … gets a lot more reports filed that cover a larger area,” said Geoff Chester, spokesman for the U.S. Naval Observatory.
The object was visible for about three seconds after it pierced the earth’s atmosphere at about 10 p.m. and began to disintegrate while shooting a trail of sparks.
“We’re probably looking at a rock that is whizzing along at rather an impressive speed — several dozen miles per second,” Chester said. “We’re talking about something that’s probably the size of a basketball.”
Because of the path the object took — from the east toward the north — Chester said he believes it was a meteor rock. Something man-made would come in north to south or west to east.
“The Air Force is currently tracking something on the order of 25,000 to 30,000 objects in lower earth orbit — [items] that would be bigger than a baseball,” Chester said.
Some of the space junk floating out there includes dead rocket boosters, dead satellites and sundry things that have floated off the International Space Station. Chester said old rocket boosters can be a problem if the bulkhead between fuel tanks is compromised and hyperbolic fuels explode upon contact with each other.
“When that happens, instead of having one big piece of space debris, now you have thousands of little ones,” Chester observed. Small particles of space debris and micro meteoroids routinely punch holes in the solar panels on the space station and used to pit the windows of the space shuttles, causing them to need to be replaced.
Some space junk is of a more historically significant nature.
“If you remember way back in 1965, when Ed White did the first American spacewalk, one of his gloves floated out of the cabin,” Chester recalled.