Those Lights in the Sky? Just Chinese Spacecraft Debris Burning Up on Re-entry

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The Shenzhou 15 launched in November 2022, carrying three astronauts to the Chinese space station Tiangong.

After mysterious light streaks were seen during the early hours of April 2 across the Southern California sky, sparking various speculations, the U.S. Space Command confirmed April 3 they were debris from a Chinese spacecraft that launched three astronauts in 2022.

The “fireball” seen was the flaming debris of Shenzhou 15 as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the eastern Pacific Ocean, according to Fox News.

“U.S. Space Command can confirm the People’s Republic of China SZ-15 Module, SCC# 56873, re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere over the eastern Pacific Ocean at approximately 1:43 a.m. Pacific time on April 2,” a U.S. Space Command spokesperson told Fox News.

Shenzhou 15 launched in November 2022, carrying three astronauts to the Tiangong space station. The astronauts returned in a re-entry module; the orbital module was not designed to return to Earth safely, according to the space news website space.com.

Speculation quickly arose that the lights might have been connected to a SpaceX rocket launch Monday night from Vandenberg Space Force Base on California’s Central Coast. But that launch occurred around 7:30 p.m., long before the mystery lights appeared.

It is common for old rocket boosters and other space debris to fall to Earth either as expected or due to collisions in orbit.

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Low-Earth orbit is growing crowded with active and defunct satellites, heightening the risk of collisions, according to experts. NASA’s Orbital Debris Program estimates there are over 25,000 objects larger than 3.9 inches and about 500,000 smaller pieces orbiting Earth, Fox News reported.

NASA, the European Space Agency, and other groups have guidelines for disposing of defunct satellites and rocket parts in low-Earth orbit through natural decay or controlled re-entry.

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