Some observers were treated to a light show last night when the Department of Defense destroyed a falling spy satellite.
"I'm still having a hard time believing I actually caught the debris, but two others with us also saw a bright dot move fast from what was to be the intercept position," Hawaii-based skywatcher Rob Ratkowski told SPACE.com.
He observed a meteor shower of sorts when, apparently, bits of debris from the broken-up satellite burned up as they fell through Earth's atmosphere. Ratkowski, a professional photographer and astronomy enthusiast, took photos of what he saw from Maui, near where the U.S. Navy ship fired the missile that intercepted the satellite.
Examining the evidence
"It wasn't until I got home and examined the images that I started seeing more dots in the field of view," he said.
His photos were posted to the amateur satellite observer's mailing list, SeeSat-L.
By enhancing the contrast of one image an observer commenting on the mailing list counted 552 "dots" in it, presumably each representing a bit of satellite material.
While the images have not been confirmed as actually depicting debris from the satellite, as opposed to stars or other objects, some posters to the site vouched for their likely authenticity.
"I've taken a lot of astrophotos and I don't think even the brightest stars would register in so short an exposure (1/500 second) with so small a telescope," Patrick Wiggins wrote.
Ratkowski also took an image of what he believes to be the vapor trail of hydrazine gas created when the satellite's liquid fuel spewed into the vacuum of space. But this image was debated on the site.
"I can't imagine the vapour trail as a long line — it should be a cloud/'comet'?" wrote B. Gimle.
The satellite was intercepted by a Navy missile launched at 10:26 p.m. ET last night. Military officials said they think the missile successfully hit the failing satellite, with a high probability that it struck the fuel tank full of hydrazine, a chemical that would have been dangerous had it landed on Earth. The debris from the broken-up bus-sized satellite is probably too small to be hazardous to humans, said a senior military officer.
As the night went on the debris followed the ground path of the satellite's orbit and fell over the northwestern United States and Canada, giving observers there a show.
"At approx. 19:43 PDT ... a group of about 30 people, PG Centre members and public, witnessed what we assume was the demise of the spy satellite USA 193," wrote Brian Battersby of the Prince George Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, in a message posted to SeeSat-L.
"Many debris trails were witnessed moving from south-west to north-east at high altitude," Battersby wrote. "One was especially bright and long lasting. I can recall about 6 bright trails and 15 fainter ones. The debris trails seemed to come in "waves" with the first wave being brighter than the debris that followed behind it. The trails seemed to be in a fan shape with the trails being wider apart in the north-east than they were in the south-east."
Observers who missed last night's show may get another chance. It's possible that viewers along the ground path of the satellite's remains may be able to see debris as it falls through the atmosphere over the coming days, said Geoff Chester, public affairs officer for the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.
"Due to the relatively low altitude of the satellite at the time of the engagement, debris will begin to re-enter the earth's atmosphere immediately," said a Department of Defense statement. "Nearly all of the debris will burn up on reentry within 24-48 hours and the remaining debris should re-enter within 40 days."
Marine General James Cartwright confirmed at a Pentagon news conference that debris from the satellite has been observed entering the atmosphere, but none has so far been seen to survive re-entry. He also said that a vapor cloud was spotted. He did not specify which observatories made these observations.
SPACE.com contacted a number of astronomical observatories but none reported attempting to observe the satellite last night, nor did they have plans for future observations of the debris.
"We didn't observe the satellite destruction last night," said a spokesperson from the W. M. Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, who declined to be named. "Our telescope cannot track something moving that fast. To track an object moving that fast you need a much more nimble telescope."