By Phil Plait
On Thursday night, reports of a stream of UFOs over Chile and Argentina started making the rounds. It was caught on video, and it’s pretty amazing!
It’s with some relief I can say that’s not a fleet of alien spaceships bent on either enslaving the human race or possibly eating us. It's not even a swarm of meteors: what you're actually seeing there is a satellite dramatically breaking up as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. And it’s even been identified: it was the Cygnus mass simulator, a payload lofted into space by the Antares rocket in April!
That was the first successful launch of the rocket by the Orbital Sciences Corporation, placing several small satellites into orbit. Eventually, the rocket will also be equipped with a cargo delivery spacecraft called Cygnus, planned to take supplies to the space station. For the first test flight on Apr. 17, Antares carried a dummy payload with the same mass as a Cygnus to test out the rocket systems.
Antares put the Cygnus dummy into a low orbit. At that altitude the atmosphere is thin, but it’s there. Over time, drag affected the satellite, lowering its orbit, dropping it into thicker air, slowing and dropping it more. On Thursday night local time (Friday morning, May 10 at about 01:00 UTC), the Cygnus dummy payload dropped down enough to experience re-entry. As it slammed through the atmosphere at several thousand kilometers per hour it compressed the air in front of it, heating it up. The pressure and heat disintegrated the structure, and it fell apart, blazing across the sky.
The timing, direction, and speed are all consistent with it being the Antares payload, so it looks like we can move this event from the "UFO" into the "IFO" category.
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