Dying Satellite, Not U.F.O. or Meteor, Likely Caused Midwest Fireball – The New York Times

“Ninety-nine percent certainty it was a failure,” said Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks objects in orbit and was closely monitoring the Russian satellite.

The satellite likely burned up in the atmosphere without hitting land, Dr. McDowell said.

“Re-entries of Russian satellites over the U.S. happen now and again — maybe a couple times in the past five years or so, off the top of my head.”

Russia’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Space Command confirmed that it had tracked COSMOS 2551’s re-entry to the atmosphere, and added that “The reentry position of this object was not unusual or a cause for great concern.”

Sky watchers have witnessed other major uncontrolled re-entries of old or errant spacecraft this year. Sometimes objects associated with launches survive the return to the surface, like a pressure vessel from part of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket that crashed in a man’s farm in Washington in April. Then in May, large chunks of debris from a Chinese rocket splashed into waters off the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

It was unknown where exactly the pieces of China’s rocket, a Long March 5B, would re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. That uncertainty renewed calls for more specific international rules governing space activities. NASA’s administrator, Bill Nelson, criticized China at the time, saying Beijing was “failing to meet responsible standards regarding their space debris.”

While a 1972 United Nations treaty makes nations liable for damage caused by objects launched from their territories, there are little in the way of international rules curbing the conditions in space that could create damage — like a dead spacecraft tumbling back into the atmosphere. In recent years, U.S. officials have called for new rules of the road to adapt to an increasingly busy orbital highway as numerous companies, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, aim to send thousands of internet-beaming satellites into low-Earth orbit.

“As more goes up, more will come down,” Mike Hankey, an amateur meteorite hunter who manages the American Meteor Society’s fireball database, said of recent cases of space debris causing pyrotechnic sky shows. “It is not really my favorite thing to work on, but it is happening a lot more and the system can track it well.”

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