Senior Expert in Emerging Technology
If you just happened to be outside Sunday night and looked to the eastern sky, you would have seen an interesting site. I walked outside last night to get my travel coffee mug out of the car and saw what appeared to be a glowing chemical trail across the entire eastern sky. I pulled out my cell phone and took a photo of the sight then proceeded to go inside to research what might be going on east of Missouri. The Google search was simple, “Glowing Chem Trail,” which led to learning that the spent fuel in the Falcon 9 rocket boosters leave a seemingly glowing chemical trail.
This search lead me down the path of trying to find out if there were any recent Falcon 9 rocket launches; as it turns out there was a launch on February 3, carrying 49 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit. This was the sixth launch of this particular Falcon 9 first stage booster. The launch and landing of the first stage was flawless and the mission was an apparent success. However, a solar flare stuck the upper atmosphere on February 9, causing massive failures in 40 of the 49 satellites. The now defunct satellites have created a man-made meteor shower-like event as the satellites burn falling back into the Earth’s atmosphere.
SpaceX officials said in a statement, “The de-orbiting satellites pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric reentry – meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts hit the ground.”
So how much more space debris is floating down into our atmosphere, creating spectacular light shows in the sky? To get to the answer, there is a satellite tracking website designed to track all space debris as it orbits the planet and make predictions of the trajectory and re-entry point. This is a public website and can be used to determine what causes things like the glowing chemical trail I photographed in the eastern sky.
According to https://www.satview.org/spacejunk.php, a piece of Falcon 9 debris was predicted to re-enter the atmosphere within an eight hour window of 12:20 a.m. Monday, February 14, with a path visible to the southeast of Missouri. I was successful in finding the source of the chemical trail and learned about a cool new website that tracks space debris in the process.
As we are talking about space debris, there are a couple of other interesting things happening in space this week, if you have not been following the news out of the scientific communities. Scientists have been tracking a chunk of space debris named WE0913A and based on its current trajectory, it should collide with the far side of the Moon on March 4, around 12:25 p.m. UTC. The original identification of WE091A, made back in 2015, placed the debris as abandoned standard rocket stages from the SpaceX rocket responsible for delivery of NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite into Earth orbit. Astronomer Bill Gray, the creator of Project Pluto software used to track near-Earth objects, originally discovered the debris passing the Moon two days after the DISCOVR mission launched and connected the dots, falsely linking the object to this mission. However, in recent weeks, after the object was predicted to hit the Moon, Jon Giorgni at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, responsible for tracking active spacecraft including spend boosters, noted that DSCOVR’s orbit does not take it anywhere near the Moon. After continuing his research, he discovered another object that had gotten lost in tracking called 2014-065B, the booster stage of a Long March 3C rocket used launch China’s Chang’e 5-T1 mission to the Moon.
I would say there is a lot of debris out there, some of it put there by our missions to space and some from natural causes, but a really cool new hobby could be watching for re-entry trails from space debris. Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.
Scott Hamilton is an expert in emerging technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or through his website at https://www.techshepherd.org.