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Queen's shooting star was actually meteor, not SpaceX junk

Expert tells El Reg: 'It was unusual, a geometrical curiosity'

Video The fireball spotted charging through the night-time skies of Scotland and Northern Ireland this week, initially thought to have been some fallen SpaceX hardware, was a meteor after all, according to the UK Meteor Network.

Skywatchers were shocked by a bright object whizzing by overhead late on Wednesday. A video capturing the unusual sight shows the light from the object flickered like a sparkler and had what looked like a green glow and a dusty tail.

Those who thought they had seen a shooting star – or those looking for a heavenly send-off for Queen Elizabeth or a sign of assent for King Charles III, the new British monarch – were probably disappointed when astronomers at the UK Meteor Network said it was nothing more than a lone deorbiting SpaceX satellite disintegrating in the atmosphere.

"Most meteors enter the atmosphere between around 75,000 and 80,000 mph," John Maclean, an astronomer with the network, told The Guardian.

"Whereas space junk is slower at 25,000 to 30,000 mph. As a result space junk is visible across the sky for much longer. A meteor would be a matter of a few seconds, whereas this was visible for 20 seconds. That's too slow for [a] meteor."

The citizen science group has now changed its mind, and believes the fireball was a meteor that had an "asteroidal orbit" and a speed of "14.2 kilometres per second" or roughly 31,765 miles per hour. The object is unlikely to be part or all of a SpaceX Starlink satellite.

"We have checked the Starlink de-orbit and it would not have come anywhere near the UK. At this point we cannot find any known space junk or satellite de-orbit that could account for this fireball," the UK Meteor Network said in an update on Thursday.

Science: it takes a second look

Closer inspection of the object's trajectory revealed it must have been something of alien origin. Denis Vida, a meteor physics postdoctoral researcher at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, confirmed it was a meteor and shared his results with the UK Meteor Network. Vida helps operate 700 cameras across the world looking out for meteor events as part of the Global Meteor Network. 

This fireball was unusual

"Once I looked at the data and made actual measurements on the videos our meteor cameras observed, the numbers have shown that it was in fact a natural object on an orbit reaching just beyond Mars. If it was a SpaceX satellite, the orbit would have been much smaller and around Earth instead of the Sun like it was in this case," he told The Register.

"This fireball was unusual because it lasted a very long time and it covered a lot of ground, which is usually a characteristic of re-entries. However this doesn't make the object special or more interesting in any way, it is simply a geometrical curiosity. Other fireballs usually enter the atmosphere at a much steeper angle and are thus shorter."

Sadly, we probably won't find any evidence of the space rock. Traces of what might have been left of the meteor likely landed in the North Atlantic Ocean some 50 to 100 km west of the Isle of Islay, a remote, southern island of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. ®

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