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Fiery debris from Chinese rocket spotted streaking across Central Coast skies

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A fiery streak across the sky captured the curiosity of some Santa Barbara County residents early Tuesday morning, but it simply was space debris from a Chinese rocket’s re-entry.

The sighting occurred hours after the Falcon 9 rocket launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base at 7:30 p.m. Monday to deliver 22 Starlink satellites into orbit, but it wasn’t related to the mission.

Between 1:40 a.m. and 1:45 a.m., Regina Penner in Goleta saw what she initially believed to be a falling star streaking across the sky.

“Then it burst into a big, huge round ball of bright, white light with a very long and wide straight tail of a large burning fire,” Penner said. “After lasting like that for about 30 seconds to almost one minute, it began to dissipate as it dropped towards what appeared to be to the ground and then faded completely from my sight.”

She ruled out a meteor because it was moving slowly, Penner added about the long red and yellow streak.

“I wasn’t sure what it was,” she said. “It was kind of spooky to see the fire and the long trail of it.”

She wasn’t alone. Residents in Orcutt, Santa Maria and elsewhere in the county shared video on social media sites.

Video from Southern California showed pieces of the object breaking off to create multiple fiery tails linked to the main fireball.

A driver traveling east in Cuyama said the streak lit “the valley up good and looked awesome at that time of the morning with no lights around.”

“Anybody see that thing in the sky floating about 1:45?” a woman asked. “It looked like fireworks but it was going up in the sky and just kept going look like fire trail.”

A man recording a video from his backyard had a more succinct reaction: “What the (expletive).”

Some offered less likely answers such as suggesting the cause was an “intergalactic race kinda like the Olympics but for different planets,” or simply “space aliens.”

Others claimed that possible sources were a falling meteorite, a re-entering satellite or a launched rocket.

An object matching the time and re-entry location has been identified as an “SZ-15 Module,” said Maj. Erin Leon, a spokeswoman for U.S. Space Forces — Space and Combined/Joint Force Space Component at Vandenberg.

China’s Shenzhou 15 mission carrying three people launched in November 2022.

Leon added that space-track.org, a website maintained by the 18th Space Defense Squadron located at Vandenberg to share data on satellites and debris in space in order to promote space flight safety, pinpointed the suspected source of the fiery sight seen early Tuesday.

The 18th Space Defense Squadron’s members track more than 28,000 human-made objects, including operating satellites and space debris, and share the data with the world via the website spacetrack.org.

Aerospace Corp.’s website spells out differences between re-entries of human-made objects or meteors. Sightings with a slow speed and a long, glowing streak are likely to be an object re-entering the atmosphere, according to the organization’s guide, which can be seen by clicking here.

It’s not known whether any pieces of the debris seen Tuesday survived re-entry, but Aerospace Corp. says an individual’s risk from re-entering objects is “extremely small compared to other hazards we face daily.”