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Video shows the stunning results of a recent SpaceX failure

A failed Starlink launch gave us quite a fireworks show.

Brent Marshall

What goes up must come down. But some falls are more explosive than others.

Early Friday morning, eagle-eyed stargazers caught something strange in the sky — a shooting streak of blazing debris, breaking up over the Pacific Northwest. Experts quickly realized this was no UFO — rather, it appears to have been fragments of a SpaceX rocket.

The rocket was identified as a part of SpaceX’s Starlink program safely re-entering the atmosphere and breaking up, its fragments burning up on re-entry. Starlink is Elon Musk’s effort to make satellite-powered internet available at almost every location on Earth.

The subsequent light show caused quite a stir, but there was no danger involved.

People posted videos of the burning rocket remains on Twitter for all to see.

What was the SpaceX rocket that burned up in the atmosphere?

Here’s what we know: On March 4, SpaceX launched a fresh batch of Starlink satellites to orbit aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.

Starlink is an “internet from space” product that relies on many interconnected satellites to bring faster internet from space to users here on Earth.

The launch itself went well. But then things appear to have gone awry. Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard Center for Astrophysics astrophysicist who tracks orbital comings and goings in his spare time, tells Inverse that the rocket’s second stage appears to have failed to deorbit properly.

“The Falcon 9 second stage from the Mar 4 Starlink launch failed to make a deorbit burn and is now reentering after 22 days in orbit. Its reentry was observed from the Seattle area at about 0400 UTC Mar 26.”Jonathan McDowell / Twitter

“[The] launch was successful, just the safe disposal of the second stage didn't happen so it was up for 22 days,” McDowell tells Inverse.

He adds that at no point was the rocket an orbital hazard.

The trajectory of the erroneous second-stage rocket meant it was flying inland, rather than outward to the sea. Most of it will break up on re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere, like a shooting star. But McDowell says a few chunks of the rocket may make it to the ground.

“[It’s] possible some dense engine components will hit the ground — maybe over the Canada/Montana border at a guess,” he says.

It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened with a SpaceX rocket. In 2016, a SpaceX rocket fell to Earth over Indonesia, according to Spaceflight 101. It reported at least two large fragments touching down on land.

How do we know it was a SpaceX rocket?

The National Weather Service bureau in Seattle took a look at videos and photos from the incident and determined that it was likely a SpaceX rocket rather than a bolide meteor, which McDowell confirmed.

“Based on the observed video, this looks more likely than a bolide meteor or similar object as they would be moving far faster on impact with our atmosphere,” the bureau tweeted.

The tweets read, “While we await further confirmation on the details, here's the unofficial information we have so far. The widely reported bright objects in the sky were the debris from a Falcon 9 rocket 2nd stage that did not successfully have a deorbit burn. Based on the observed video, this looks more likely than a bolide meteor or similar object as they would be moving far faster on impact with our atmosphere. There are NO expected impacts on the ground in our region at this time. More info will be posted as it becomes available.”NWS Seattle / Twitter

The event was essentially a “one and done” — an ephemeral treat for skywatchers and SpaceX enthusiasts alike.

Videos were posted to YouTube and social media for those who do not live in the Washington area.

Has falling space debris ever hurt anyone?

The trajectory of the erroneous second-stage rocket meant it was flying inland, rather than outward to the sea. Most of it will break up on re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere, like a shooting star. But McDowell says a few chunks of the rocket may make it to the ground.

“[It’s] possible some dense engine components will hit the ground — maybe over the Canada/Montana border at a guess,” he says.

It wouldn’t be the first time this has happened with a SpaceX rocket. In 2016, a SpaceX rocket fell to Earth over Indonesia, according to Spaceflight 101. It reported at least two large fragments touching down on land.

In 1997, Lottie Williams of Oklahoma became the first — and so far only — person ever recorded to have been struck by a falling piece of space junk. In Lottie’s case, the debris harmlessly grazed her shoulder. The chunk was part of a Department of Defense mission called the Midcourse Space Experiment.

But at least one other chunk has killed a cow, so there is that.

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