Fireball over Colorado

By Phil Plait | January 4, 2007 8:06 pm

You may have read about a spectacular fireball that burned up over Colorado today. The event has been linked to a Russian booster re-entering after a week in space. It broke up into many pieces as it fell through the atmosphere, leaving an incredible shower of meteor-like debris trailing across the sky. You can see video of it here and here.

USA Today reports that a piece of debris may have been found from the booster, but I got an email from James Oberg who is doubtful. He thinks the debris that was found is too far north; the object didn’t break up until it was over Ft. Collins Colorado, but the debris was found in Wyoming (it was traveling to the south).

I have no opinion as yet, since I don’t have enough details. If you find more on the web, post it in the comments!

Years ago, when I was starting up my Masters degree research at the University of Virginia, I was at the observatory in rural Nelson County with a friend and the observatory director. We were looking at a bright comet that was gracing our skies when suddenly the entire sky lit up. A fantastic fireball sailed across our view, bright enough to leave an afterimage on our eyes. It was trailing flame, and moved west to east in a graceful arc. We found out the next day it was — you guessed it — a Russian booster that had re-entered. Ours didn’t break up like this one over Colorado, but it was still breathtaking and frakkin’ amazing. I’d love to see another one like that!


Comments (30)

Links to this Post

  1. Meteors from an extinct constellation (at wongaBlog) | January 5, 2007
  2. Mashups – Round Dix | Gnarvtopia! | February 23, 2011
  1. I saw the video earlier today on FOX News (why I was watching them I don’t know – oh yeah, I was just channel-surfing and saw the video) and they had audio of it, and the people didn’t know what it was, but commenting on “It’s a mystery.. it’s something totally unknown.” Typical of ignorant people bent on sensationalizing events like this. The moment I saw it I knew it was either a fireball or space junk. Didn’t take much to realize what it was — if you are a rational thinker.

  2. Michelle Rochon

    Oh yea, seen that one earlier today! I think that is one of the prettiest videos I have ever seen. Really awesome.

  3. Fort Collins Colorado is where Coordinated Universal Time is broadcast from:

    [paste]NIST radio station WWVB is located on the same site as WWV near Fort Collins, Colorado. The WWVB broadcasts are used by millions of people throughout North America to synchronize consumer electronic products like wall clocks, clock radios, and wristwatches. In addition, WWVB is used for high level applications such as network time synchronization and frequency calibrations.[end paste]

    Uh O! The Russians are coming—the russians are coming….

  4. Kyle_Carm

    News report out of Casper, Wyoming reported that the WY Highway patrol found a patch of about 3×6 foot in size that the snow was melted away in the South Pass area. That came from both a trooper and snowplow driver. They were going to see if anything could be found in the next few days after the current storm moves out of the area.

  5. Christian Burnham

    Never mind that-
    Who’s that nerdy looking guy on the Randi page today?

  6. Tell me about it, Christian! He makes last week’s poster boy (Glenn Beck) look good.

  7. My sister and I once saw a fireball, maybe ten or eleven years ago, when we were out watching for a meteor shower. I remember it made a whistling noise. Never did find out what it was.

  8. Eric

    I’m a TV news photographer. 8 or 9 years ago as I got out of the car at about 5:00am in Hartford I saw this same type of lightshow, it made great video. It was explained as Russian space junk then also. Whay is it always the Russians? Does our debris fall into the former USSR? Is that the plan or poor engineering?

  9. MaDeR

    Eric, law of orbital mechanic is gulity. Russians are lazy, like everyone else, and if space junk will be completely burned in reentry, then they don’t care where it will fall.

  10. JackC
  11. Gary Ansorge

    Hey DRE:
    Call 770-975-0055 and ask for Ranger Steve. (there’s only one on the Mt.). He has the skinny on nearly everything having to do with our iron melts, source of the iron, etc. We do the old timey way of melting iron and pouring it into molds. Even have a hand built blast furnace,,,Give us a call. We’ll start doing iron pour demos in the spring.

    Gary 7

  12. I was watching the little feature that the local Fox affiliate was showing about this … and the one bubble-headed male anchor said the meteor was the remnant of an “extinct constellation.”


  13. I hadn’t seen that, thank you for sharing. I watched the video and it was pretty spectacular!!!

  14. 1997, I believe… just east of Vancouver, BC.. three of us were heading to our stargazing site when we all witnessed a spectacular multi-coloured light show in the sky. Looked like fireworks but was slowly moving east. We were stunned. It wasn’t until the next day that we would learn it was a Russian satellite om re-entry. Some co-workers of mine 70 km’s east also saw it. To this day it remains a highlight of my sky observing memories…

  15. Melusine

    ChuckA: and the one bubble-headed male anchor said the meteor was the remnant of an “extinct constellation.”

    I can’t recall where else I read someone else saying that. That’s a keeper…for bizzare statements! Gave me a good chuckle.

  16. I don’t want to get into a big debate over this, but does anyone think that if this were a UFO they would just come out and say, “Hey, aliens just burnt up in the sky.”? They’d probably say it was a Russian rocket. Russians hardly have enough money to eat, I highly doubt they’d just waste parts for a rocket like this.

  17. MaDeR, you left out why orbital mechanics is important. Basically, the easiest orbit to get to has an inclination equal to the launch latitude. For satellites that need to be in a polar orbit, you launch North or South to put it where you want it. For everything else, in general you start out launching to the East, to get the maximum boost from the Earth’s rotation. If you need a smaller inclination orbit, you make some burns once you’re up to change the plane of the orbit. This costs a lot of fuel, so it’s only done when the orbit has to be lower inclination. Also it leaves any orbiting booster stages in the original inclined orbit.

    So, most satellites, and nearly all orbiting boosters, are in an orbit with an inclination equal to the launch latitude. American launches are mostly from Florida, latitude 28.5 degrees, while Russian launches are from Baikonur, latitude 45.5 degrees. Which means most American spacecraft never come north of 28.5 degrees, so you won’t see them burning up over Colorado. Versus Russian ones, whose orbits cover pretty much the entire continental U.S.

  18. The “extinct constellation” comment might refer to a group of spacecraft. “Constellation” is a standard term for a group of spacecraft that work together, such as Iridium, GPS, TDRSS, etc. “Extinct” would then mean one that’s not used any more, I suppose, though that’s an odd term to use. Course they also say it’s a booster, which kinda blows that whole theory out of the sky.

    Never mind. Let’s just go with “the press don’t understand science”. Guaranteed true in 95% of cases, anyway.

  19. Melusine

    Johnny Vector: Good point, but I think it would be odd not to say “constellation of spacecraft.” Also this Spaceweather page refers to “extinct” or “obsolete” constellation, but I still think it’s a weirdly confusing thing to say, because what is actually being talked about. Thus, I think your last sentence is most accurate.

  20. tom

    I never understand why the 911 call centers get flooded with calls when something like this happens.
    There is a “comet-like” thing in the sky. Quick call 911!!!

    Ugh…stupid people.

  21. Stuart

    S. Bahl at 11:01 am
    — I highly doubt they’d just waste parts for a rocket like this. —

    It’s not waste. It costs more to get rocket pieces down in useable form than it does to just let them burn up. Look at the Space Shuttle for example – Despite the aims of that program, it still costs more per pound to launch from the “re-useable” Shuttle than it does from a normal “one use” rocket.

    It’s one of the great ironies of modern space technology. One day, hopefully, rocketry and materials science will improve enough so that this is no longer true, but we’re a ways off, yet.

  22. The most remarkable thing I’ve heard about this is that the Russian rocket had been used to lauch a French space telescope. Since when do the French have a space telescope? WHY WAS I NOT INFORMED OF THIS??? Cool if true.

    Allison Cleckler, I remember seeing a firbeall once and have a vague memory of hearing a crackling sound at the same time. This simultaneous-sound phenomenon is occasionally reported, and there are a few legitimate theories (or would they be hypotheses?) to explain this. (The simultaneity is a big question. Think about the huge sound lag when a jet flies far overhead – and jets are much, much closer that meteors.) I wouldn’t be surprised if Phil has an entry on this somewhere.

  23. I think Melusine’s link explains the constellation remark. That site is 6th in google results for ‘Quadrantids’, and the final paragraph explains that the name of the shower comes from a constellation no longer officially recognised. The title of the page is the exact phrase the anchor used, too. Shame they didn’t think about what they were saying, though!

  24. Melusine

    Andrew, I’m not positive that Dr. Tony Phillips wrote that page, but he often plays a little loose with language (which is not a criticism – I’m devoted to But to me “extinct” and “obsolete” due to “re-zoning” mean two different things. Extinct to me implies the constellation disappeared for good. Obsolete in name means just that. Maybe this is a semantic nitpick. “Extinct constellation” still sounds weird to me, but I’m not an astronomer. Well, learn something new every day…

  25. Timothy Reed

    On April 24, 1990, I had the good fortune to witness the re-entry of the Space Shuttle external tank from a vantage point on Maui. STS-31 was the flight that put the Hubble Space Telecope in orbit. The external tank usually burns up over the Indian Ocean, but the higher inclination orbit of this flight gave NASA an opportunity to dump the tank over Hawaii. The advantage of that was to observe the breakup with the array of telescopes at the Air Force Maui Optical Station on top of Haleakala.

    Detailed observation was desired because NASA wanted to see if the tank would sufficiently break up without the use of the external tank tumble valve, which is used to jettison residual oxygen and hydrogen to start the tank rotating so that when it enters the atmosphere it breaks up more readily. (If you want something to break up in the atmosphere, the last thing you want is a nice stable aerodynamic shape easily slicing through the air.)

    Working on a project associated with the Haleakala station, I was notified of the impending re-entry at about 3 a.m. local time. The spectacle was quite similar to the Colorado re-entry — colorful, bright, silent — but larger in extent. Two bright flashes early in the re-entry were presumably the ruptures of the oxygen and hydrogen tanks.

    While I didn’t see this one (I live in the Denver metro area), I can assure you that it’s a truly spectacular sight!

    Timothy Reed

  26. Madalone


    According to NORAD sources cited in the Fox Colorado website, the fireball was caused by the booster stage for the COROT satellite.

    The COROT telescope will try to find extrasolar planets by detecting their transits in front of their home suns. An interesting mission that has gone tragically underreported in the Bas Astronomy Blog. (@BA: Nudge, nudge…)

    More to be found at

    Greetings from good olde Europe

    Matthias Dübendorfer

  27. I’ve done some research on the veracity of NORAD’s story that this was a Russian rocket booster. It may have been because of the launch trajectory, but the likelihood that it came from the Corot launch on December 27 is practically nil. See story on my website.


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