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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Space Oddity

'Fireball' spotted crossing the sky over Ireland and UK last night likely to be space debris

Astronomy Ireland’s David Moore told The Journal that they were “flooded with reports” of sightings of the fireball last night.

THERE HAVE BEEN almost 800 reports of a “meteor” crossing the sky over Ireland and the UK. 

People took to social media last night to report spotting the fireball from a number of different locations throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales.

The UK Meteor Network said it began receiving reports of a fireball being spotted at about 9pm, and tweeted that it had received more than 200 reports last night. 

793 reports have been made to the International Meteor Organization from people who saw the object. The sightings began at around 9pm and lasted until around 10pm.

Speaking to The Journal, Astronomy Ireland’s David Moore said the organisation was “flooded with reports” about the fireball. 

“It’s one of the biggest fireballs I can remember in a year or two at least,” he said.

“It’s very unusual, because if you look at the weather forecast maps, it was mostly cloudy over most of Ireland and Britain, and we’ve seen reports coming in from London, all the way across to Killarney, all the way up to County Donegal and loads in Scotland, and even the north coast of Scotland.

“So that’s redefining these islands completely. Anyone that had a clear sky on the whole of both islands would have seen it, and it’s almost exactly at 10pm. It was about 30 seconds before 10pm.”

Moore said that rather than a meteor, it was more likely to be a piece of a man-made space debris – a piece of space equipment like a satellite that no longer works and is discarded.

“It was definitely an object from space burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere, and given how long it was visible for – I’ve seen some reports going up to 40 seconds, but most seem to be around that 15-second mark – that means it either just happened to come in almost parallel to the ground, which is quite rare, or it was a piece of man-made space debris,” he said.

“That is going around the earth in a sort of circular orbit and will slowly lower itself on to the atmosphere and then will burn up over a very long trajectory. So we’re not certain yet, but the most likely explanation is a piece of a man-made spacecraft burning up.”

Fragments coming off of the fireball, which were visible in some of the videos shared on social media, would make it more likely to be space debris disintegrating as it re-enters the atmosphere, Moore explained. 

“It certainly fits with that explanation. So it probably was man-made space debris burning up. Still just as spectacular as a natural piece of rock out in space. It’s just they can last a lot longer.”

Space debris falling back to Earth is not unusual, and is likely to become more frequent with the growth of the space industry.

Last month, the Australian Space Agency confirmed that a large chunk of debris that fell on a farm in New South Wales was from a craft built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.

Reports of people being struck by space debris are very rate. In 1997, a woman called Lottie Williams was struck by a piece from a Delta II rocket in Tulsa

However, a study published in July calculated that there is a roughly 10% chance that debris will strike one or more people within the next decade.

Moore said that given the trajectory of the fireball seemed to be off the north coast of Ireland towards the west coast of Scotland, it is likely that it ended up in the sea.

“Looking at the reports, I would tend to think it probably made it off the land and into the sea. The thing is, we can see these things for up to 1,000 miles away, and of course, Ireland, especially north west and south, has got ocean in that direction and a reasonable sea to the east,” he said.

“Most of the fireballs that we get reports off, they end up falling in the sea but a few do end up falling on land. It’s very rarely they get found. The last one to actually be found on Irish soil was 1999.”

Moore said the next meteor shower expected to appear in Irish skies will happen on 21 October. The Orionid meteor shower is caused by pieces that fell off Halley’s Comet.

“That we can predict, but we probably won’t have one as big as this during that meteor shower. They tend to be a lot more with smaller objects.”

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