Eastern Australia was given a fantastic view last night as a bright, long-tailed fireball streaked across the sky. The light show went on for about 30 seconds, and speculation began on Twitter as eyewitnesses looked to decipher what the hell it was that was entering our atmosphere. According to Dr Alan Duffy from Swinburne University, it was most likely a bit of Russian space junk re-entering the atmosphere over Australia.
Dr Duffy is an astronomer and research fellow from Swinburne University, and said that he was excited to see reports of the spectacular light show on Twitter.
"It was an exciting night as twitter alerted me to the sightings. Initially I thought it was a small pebble sized asteroid as it was only above Melbourne. By the minute more sightings came in of a blazing trail heading north over NSW, ACT with even QLD reporting it, making clear it was a big object to be burning up for so long," Dr Duffy said this morning.
"When a meteor is spotted astronomers need the eyewitness accounts to narrow down the possibilities. Like any good detective novel, the eyewitness is everything!"
Eyewitnesses of the falling object reported seeing it moving slowly which, according to Dr Duffy, meant that it was more likely to be a piece of space junk rather than a piece of space rock.
"It was tracking slowly across the sky suggesting it was still high up, in the same way planes high above seem to move more slowly than those close to the ground, as well as not moving fast enough to stay in orbit. This meant that the object entering the atmosphere was more likely to be space junk (manmade) falling back to Earth than an asteroid which would be striking the atmosphere much faster."
NASA had previously issued a warning about a Russian Souyuz launch vehicle returning into Earth's atmosphere after completing its mission delivering satellites into orbit.
Use this link to see what burnt up over Tassie/Victoria/NSW last night: pic.twitter.com/wa1U9BTLED
— Sydney Observatory (@sydneyobs) July 11, 2014
Dr Duffy added that if it was a piece of the Souyuz, NASA had no idea where it would re-enter the atmosphere.
"They [NASA] couldn't be definite about when and where it would fall because it depends on exactly what the upper atmosphere is like where the space junk begins to start re-entering. If the atmosphere was denser then it would experience more drag and plunge into the sea below Tasmania. If the atmosphere was less dense the object would have started to slow down a few minutes later missing Australia but giving South East Asia a great light-show!"
NASA has since confirmed in its sky-tracking report that the Soyuz subject went down over Australia at around 17:00 UTC time yesterday.
Sydney Observatory tracked the trajectory of the object as it flew over Australia. It became visible as it passed over Tasmania, and streaked across the sky for residents of Victoria, New South Wales and even Brisbane for a spell.
Image: Sydney Observatory
While nobody is really sure where the piece of space junk landed, Dr Duffy says that some farmers might get a scientific surprise in the next week or so.
"The more solid metal pieces of the Soyuz rocket may have survived and fallen in North NSW / South QLD but the smallest gust of wind as it falls can send these pieces off by many kilometres making it unlikely we'll ever know where this ended up. Although any farmers in that area might want to watch out for a lump of metal in their fields when ploughing," he said.
Check out the best Twitter posts from the meteor passing over Australia here.