Mystery Solved, Fireball Is Identified Flying Object

Fireball that streaked across Texas sky finally explained.

The fireball that blazed across the Texas sky and sparked numerous weekend calls to law enforcement agencies now can be considered an identified flying object.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Monday the fireball was a natural phenomenon -- not flying space junk -- and a North Texas astronomer said more specifically that it was probably a pickup truck-sized meteor with the consistency of concrete.

A spokesperson for NORAD (The North American Aerospace Defense Command) Sgt. Claudette Hutchinson said the fireball was, "probably a natural occurrence, not any space debris." 

The object was visible Sunday morning from Austin to Dallas and into East Texas.

In Central Texas, the Williamson County sheriff's office received so many emergency calls that it sent a helicopter aloft to look for debris from a plane crash.

The FAA backed off its weekend claim that the fireball was caused by falling debris from colliding satellites plummeting into earth's atmosphere. 

"There is no correlation between the debris from that collision and those reports of re-entry," said Maj. Regina Winchester, official spokesman for the U.S. Strategic Command, which includes the Air Force Space Command that monitors satellites.

Jim Orberg, space program expert and NBC contributor, explained that officials at Strategic Command came to that conclusion by noting the orientation in space of the belt of debris formed from the remains of both satellites, and that Texas was not passing through the belts of debris at the time of the sightings.

Dr. Mark Matney, a scientist in the orbital debris program at Johnson Space Center, confirms any debris that might be falling into the atmosphere would be so small that the burn-up flares would be brief and dim. The bigger pieces, those big enough to generate a fireball like the one actually seen on Sunday, characteristically stay closer to the original orbit of the parent satellites, 500 miles in space.

Numerous people across Texas reported seeing fireballs in the air Sunday morning. People in Richardson, Plano, Burleson and near Corsicana reported seeing the streaks in the skies.

Kenneth and Jacqueline Terry said they saw fireballs in the sky as they were leaving church services at the Potter's House in Dallas.

"It was definitely five streaks of burning debris that lasted for about five seconds, and then it disappeared and then the white smoke stayed and it just started to go with the wind," Kenneth Terry said.

"It was really amazing," Jacqueline Terry said.

Air traffic controllers at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport also received several reports from pilots of a streak of light in the sky. Some pilots said it looked like something re-entering the atmosphere, an air traffic source said. Controllers also saw what looked like a vapor trail in the sky far to the south of the airport.

The FAA said some Texas law enforcement agencies have found debris, but it was not immediately clear which agencies reported finding pieces. The FAA said people who find pieces of debris should not touch them and should contact law enforcement.

The satellite collision involved an Iridium commercial satellite, which was launched in 1997, and a Russian satellite launched in 1993 and believed to be non-functioning. The two satellites collided nearly 500 miles over Siberia in what NASA officials said was the first high-speed impact between two intact spacecraft.

On Monday,  the FAA also canceled a warning about space junk, the agency had issued to pilots after two satellites recently collided in space 

The chief of Russia's Mission Control said clouds of debris from the collision will circle Earth for thousands of years and threaten numerous satellites.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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