Large fireball illuminates Southern African skies

On the evening of August 24, a bright object traveling fast in the upper atmosphere had thousands of people mesmerised. It was spotted by many in the Gauteng province of South Africa but was visible further North into Limpopo and Zimbabwe. At first we didn’t know what it was.

A usual shooting star is a rock the size of a grain of sand, so this looked a lot larger and it could be seen breaking up in the atmosphere. We’re lucky it happened after sunset, otherwise it would not be visible.

It could also have been something made by humans. Indeed, space is full of the debris of our interplanetary dreams. In 2001, the Russian Space Station Mir ended its faithful service to humanity in a stunning fireball above the Pacific Ocean.

Rockets reach space in stages. Until Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 landed back on Earth, rockets used to be discarded in space after one launch, and only capsules used to come back to Earth. One such capsule can be seen at the Cape Town Science Centre in South Africa. This is one of the reasons space travel was so expensive. OK it still is – but less so, and space has even become the next frontier in terms of tourism for the very wealthy.

Falcon 9 rockets landing back on Earth in 2018 after the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. Credit: cnet

This single-use approach to space travel also created a lot of large debris. This debris eventually falls back onto Earth. When large human-made objects orbit the planet they are often monitored, as they could present a hazard for satellites, aircraft, or us on the ground.

Thanks to this, astronomer and space geek Jonathan McDowell as well as twitter user @Skitt0608 were able to identify last night’s object as Chinese rocket Yuanzheng-1S, meant to demonstrate satellite internet provision capabilities.

So there you have it: it was a piece of rocket, re-entering the atmosphere and burning up due to friction with air molecules. As more of our space junk falls back to Earth we may see more of these human-made shooting stars.

If you want to work in space, here’s what to do: take mathematics and science at school, enroll in a physics degree, or an engineering degree, and dream big! Who knows where this could take you?