Light show by old Soviet rocket fills eastern sky

After 26 years in orbit, worn-out space vehicle burns up off Delaware

September 07, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

A fireball in the eastern sky that startled early-morning commuters from Washington to New York yesterday was not a meteor, but an old Soviet rocket re-entering the atmosphere after 26 years in orbit.

The United States Space Command said the Vostok launch vehicle was sent into orbit in 1975 and sizzled back into the atmosphere some 10 miles off the Delaware coast about 5:51 am. yesterday.

Witnesses said the brilliant yellow and white fireball took at least 20 seconds to cross the sky from south to north.

"It was totally cool," said Kevin Grey, 23, a software engineer from Hazlet, N.J., who spotted a bright light trailing a plume of smoke as he drove to the beach at Sandy Hook, N.J., to photograph the sunrise.

"I thought it was a plane at first, but I noticed the smoke trail had only just started," he said. "It came out of nowhere."

He added, "It was a bright white light, so then I thought maybe it was a rocket or a missile. Just at the end, it broke into several fragments that glittered out."

Grey said the smoke trail lingered in the sky for 15 to 20 minutes more. A photo taken from York, Pa., and posted on the CNN Web site showed the rope-like plume twisted by high-altitude winds.

Worried and curious callers set the phones ringing at radio stations in Baltimore and Washington.

The National Weather Service office in Sterling, Va., also got calls, as did the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington and the operations tower at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"The ground crew saw it," said Melanie Miller, a BWI spokes-woman. "They called operations and asked if they had seen it, and asked, 'What was that?'"

The decay of the rocket's orbit had been forecast a week ago by the U.S. Space Command, which tracks all orbiting satellites and space debris.

"Re-entering objects have a very similar radar profile to an incoming ballistic missile," said Army Maj. Barry Venable, a spokesman for the Space Command.

"To preclude any false indications from the missile warning network, we track these re-entering objects with interest."

The Space Command can't predict whether or where such objects might land, only where they drop from orbit. "Only the most hardened alloys would survive re-entry," he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was notified as a matter of routine, Richardson said, but added that 'the chances of it hitting someone are pretty remote."

Amateur astronomers and satellite watchers got word of the rocket's impending re-entry Wednesday night and were on the lookout.

They e-mailed their sightings to the American Meteor Society from as far south as Alexandria, Va., and as far north as Manchester, Conn.

Nearly all of them reported seeing the object for more than 10 seconds, said James E. Richardson, the society's manager.

"That's a very long duration for a meteoric fireball," he said. "This an indication that this was more likely a [rocket] re-entry."

Man-made space debris re-enters the atmosphere at Earth-orbital speed, perhaps 18,000 mph. 'Meteoric fireballs are in a solar orbit and collide with the Earth at a much faster velocity," Richardson said.

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