October 1, 2012

Last week in the UK, people from all over England, Scotland and Wales called the police to report very bright lights in the night sky. One caller said, "I’ve seen shooting stars and meteor showers before, but this was much larger and much more colorful."

Experts think that what people probably saw was "space junk." Dr Tim O’Brien, from the Jodrell Bank Observatory, said it’s not possible to know the exact source. "It’s hard to say exactly, whether it was a chunk of rock coming in from outer space, burning up in the atmosphere, or a bit of space debris which we call space junk, which is basically man-made stuff from a spacecraft that’s burning up in the atmosphere."

I am guessing that it was probably space junk. Meteorites, or pieces of rock, usually blaze across the sky in a matter of seconds. That’s why people call them "shooting stars."

The truth is, we’ve left a pretty big mess of old hardware circling our planet. Those things tend to take longer to burn up as they enter our atmosphere, so more people see them.


Look at this diagram; the blue sphere is Earth. According to NASA, each dot represents a bit of known space junk that’s at least 4 inches (10 cm) in low-Earth orbit, where the space station and shuttles roam. In total, some 19,000 manmade objects this size or bigger were orbiting Earth as of July 2009. And there are lots of smaller ones, too.


No one is quite sure how to do it, but there is no question that it is time for us to clean up our room!

CREDIT: NASA/Orbital Debris Program Office.

Posted by: Seymour Simon

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