- The Washington Times - Friday, September 7, 2001

A "fireball" blazing across the sky, seen from North Carolina to New York early yesterday, was space junk left over from a decades-old satellite.
By midmorning, military space-watchers in Colorado Springs confirmed that the "fireball" was the remains of the fuel tank, or booster rocket, of the Russian SL3, which had entered the Earth's atmosphere after circling the planet in outer space since 1975.
"It was the talk of the [morning] conference," said Jay Hancock, Ocean City police spokesman, of the officers arriving to begin their 6 a.m. shifts. "They described it like a jet contrail, with flashes."
"It was kind of sparkling a little bit, almost like it was on fire," said John Yeomans, who saw it at 6 a.m. as he drank coffee with his wife in their Smyrna, Del., home.
"At first, I thought it was a jetliner coming toward us, but then I saw a smoke trail," said Charles Tekula, 49, who was fishing with his son on New York's Long Island. "My son said it looked like a big, slow-moving firework across the sky. We were speechless. It was the most fantastic thing I'd ever seen."
Reports of the sighting came into fire and police departments, and radio and television stations along the Atlantic Coast. At first, it was believed to be a meteorite.
"We had as many calls as we would have on a snow cancellation day" and more than 50 e-mails, the most ever, said Mike McMearty, news director of WTOP radio.
Around-the-clock crews of the U.S. Space Control Center in Colorado Springs knew, perhaps 30 minutes in advance, that the space junk would either enter the atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean 100 miles beyond Delaware, or skip along in the atmosphere.
"They are not designed to re-enter intact," said Navy Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, public-information officer for the center. It would burn up with little or no debris reaching the ocean or land, he said.
"They can travel several thousands of miles after they enter the atmosphere. It's like skipping a stone on a lake. It's likely to have burned in the atmosphere," Cmdr. Gibbons said.
Space Control is currently tracking about 8,300 man-made objects. More than 17,000 flying objects have re-entered the Earth's atmosphere since tracking began with Russia's Sputnik in 1957, Cmdr. Gibbons said.
"It happens all the time," said Geoff Chester of the U.S. Naval Observatory, but conditions were just right to catch the attention of early-morning risers.
"It was a spectacularly clear morning," Mr. Chester said, and the space junk was high enough above the horizon that it was spotlighted by the sun, its trailing smoke clearly reflecting the sun's rays.
"And it was over the most populated area of the U.S.," he said.
Cmdr. Gibbons said the space junk seen on the East Coast was "not likely" the greenish-yellow streak seen by Californians late Wednesday night.
The booster rocket had separated from the Russian space satellite after entering space in 1975, beginning its orbit. The satellite fell back into the atmosphere in 1992, Mr. Chester said.
Space Control experts said there is only a very remote chance that such space junk will injure humans. Most of it burns up before reaching ground level or falls into the oceans, which make up 75 percent of the Earth's surface.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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