NORAD: 'Meteor Shower' Caused By Russian Rocket

Re-Entry Of Space Junk Sparks Spectacular Light Show

What appeared to be a bright meteor breaking up in the predawn sky over Colorado was actually a Russsian rocket re-entering the atmosphere, North American Aerospace Defense Command said Thursday.

"NORAD and U.S. Northern Command are aware that an SL-4 rocket body re-entered the atmosphere over Colorado and Wyoming earlier this morning. It is possible that pieces of the object broke off during reentry over states neighboring Colorado," NORAD said Thursday in a press release.

NORAD said that there was a report that a piece landed in Riverton, Wyo., near Highway 28, around 6:13 a.m., but it was unable to confirm that report.

The military identified the rocket as an SL-4 used to launch a French space telescope in December.

The 1st Space Control Squadron, located at Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station in Colorado Springs, tracked its re-entry from a launch that occurred Dec. 27, said NORAD.

The most likely area for these pieces, if they were to land, will be in southwestern Colo., and northwestern New Mexico, military officials said.

"It's important for everyone to understand that the re-entry of pieces from this rocket is complete. We encourage anyone who believes that they may know the location of a piece from this rocket to exercise caution and inform their local authorities immediately for potential recovery operations," NORAD said. "While the re-entry of space debris occurs almost daily, it is statistically unusual for the object to land in populated areas."

No damage has been reported in the area and the debris is not believed to be hazardous, NORAD said.

NORAD said it informed the National Guard and Department of Homeland Security of the event so that local authorities and first responders would be aware of what was happening.

The spectacular sight was caught on tape by Airtracker 7 early Thursday morning.

The event began at about 6:15 a.m. and was seen by thousands of people across the area.

Airtracker 7 pilot Rich Westra said the brightly lit object broke up into a number of pieces as it streaked across the sky, from north to south.

"It was definitely spectacular. I personally got to actually experience a similar type of event and it turned out to be a Russian rocket at that time as well. So when I saw that (on video) I thought, 'Boy, I wish I could have seen it,' but I did suspect that it was indeed space junk," said Demetri Klebe, an astronomer with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

"Space junk is a subset of space debris. Space junk is stuff that we put up in orbit around our earth. Space debris would include things from comets and asteroids and stuff that are basically in orbit around our sun," he explained.

7NEWS received reports from people across the area who also saw the bright meteor shower.

"I was at the Union Station light rail station and saw a very bright light -- initially it looked like a spotlight from a helicopter. The object then broke apart into smaller, brightly lit pieces," said Karen Miller.

"At first it looked like a plane with its landing lights on," wrote Charlie Pellegrino. "It looked just like the meteors you see in the movies, big round, on fire, and blazing across the sky. It lit the western sky in a blaze of rainbow colors and showed no signs of fading away as it disappeared over the Flatirons and into the southern sky. It was absolutely the most spectacular fireworks display I've ever seen."

Sara Samuels said she saw the predawn display in Glenwood Springs, Colo. There were also reports that people in Wyoming, Nebraska, and Kansas saw the objects as they streaked across the sky.

"Definitely people who were near the path, underneath the path, were seeing a really, really bright event. People who were further out east, most of the reports were Front Range reports, they didn't see it quite as bright but it was still a spectacular event," said astronomer Chris Peterson, also with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. He has received numerous calls about the lights.

Traffic on Santa Fe nearly came to a stop as drivers looked skyward in awe, witnesses said.

Riverton police Capt. Mark Stone said he saw a "pretty spectacular" burning object while he was retrieving his newspaper.

"My first concern is that we had some sort of aircraft that was coming down. It was definitely leaving a burning debris trail behind it," he said.

He said he could tell it was fairly large object, but it was too high to make out exactly what it was.

Jim Siefken of Fort Collins said he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him when he first saw the streaking lights.

The rocket was used to launch French telescope satellite COROT from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Russia. It will monitor 120,000 stars, and researchers hope it will help them locate new planets during its nearly three-year mission.

NORAD spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Sean Kelly said there was no known connection between the rocket and an object that fell from space Tuesday over New Jersey. That strange metal object crashed into a house in New Jersey, going through its roof and embedding itself in the bathroom tile. It is about the size of a golf ball and weighs as much as a can of soup. Lab tests are needed to determine if it was a meteorite.

Astronomers said that from a scientific standpoint, pieces of rockets that fall from space aren't as interesting as comets or asteroids that land on earth, but that there are still lots of souvenir collectors who would be interested in the space junk.

Colorado is host to 84 recovered and officially recognized meteorites, ranking it fourth behind Texas, New Mexico, and Kansas, said representatives with the Colorado Geological Survey.

"Meteors are streaks of light in the sky caused by debris (natural or human-made) entering the earth's atmosphere. Most meteors, however, are pieces of rock from comets and asteroids that stream through the atmosphere as the earth moves through space in its orbit around the sun. Friction from the object's contact with the atmosphere causes its outside to burn and become incandescent. Very bright meteors, typically about the same brightness as the planet Venus, are referred to as fireballs," the Colorado Geological Survey said.

If you have digital photographs of the meteor shower, please send them to 7NEWS at newstips@thedenverchannel.com.

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