The falling remains of two satellites obliterated in a devastating space collision last week may be behind weekend reports of fireballs spotted over parts of Texas and Kentucky, local media and weather officials said Sunday.
Earlier today, residents across parts of central Texas reported numerous sightings of a bright fireball streaking across the daytime sky, according to several accounts by local television stations and newspapers. The Federal Aviation Authorities (FAA) issued an advisory to aircraft pilots on Saturday alerting them of potential hazards from re-entering debris from the in-space collision of two satellites last Tuesday.
Texas's KBTX News 10 station reported numerous sightings from residents who spotted the fireballs or heard rumbling sounds earlier on Sunday. The Waco Tribune-Herald newspaper cited reports from residents who described hearing an explosion-like sound that rattled windows and shook houses. In both reports, FAA officials attributed the sightings as stemming from re-entering debris from the satellite collision, though none of the debris appeared to fall all the way to the ground.
Last week, the defunct Russian military satellite Cosmos 2251 slammed into the active U.S. communications satellite Iridium 33 as they flew about 490 miles (790 km) above Siberia. The collision destroyed both satellites, creating two large clouds of debris made up of hundreds of individual pieces, some of which may remain in orbit for up to 10,000 years, Russian mission experts have said.
Officials at the U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the U.S. Defense Department's Space Surveillance Network that continuously tracks the more than 18,000 separate pieces of space debris in orbit today, said they did receive a report of the Texas sightings on Sunday.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Terry Plumb, a spokesperson for the U.S. Strategic Command, told SPACE.com that the center received a 911 call from just outside Houston, Texas, but was awaiting confirmation that it was actually caused by debris from the Iridium 33-Cosmos 2251 satellite crash.
"We haven't received any official reports here yet," Plumb said.
Late Friday, similar sky sightings were also received by National Weather Service (NWS) centers in parts of Kentucky. Like Sunday's reports, the descriptions of explosions in the sky and earthquake-like rumbles were attributed to the likely re-entry of debris from the satellite collision, NWS officials in Jackson, Kentucky said in a statement.
"The Federal Aviation Administration has reported to local law enforcement that these events are being caused by falling satellite debris," the announcement stated. "These pieces of debris have been causing sonic booms ... resulting in the vibrations being felt by some residents ... as well as flashes of light across the sky."
A phone call to the FAA's Southern Region branch, which includes Kentucky and other southern and eastern states, was not immediately returned Sunday.
Brian Schoettmer, a meteorologist with the Jackson NWS office, told SPACE.com that residents across several countries in eastern central Kentucky called their local NWS branches to report the odd sky sightings.
"This was a pretty rare call," Schoettmer said, adding that the FAA told his office that the reports may have been caused by falling debris from the satellite crash. "Really rare, actually."
NASA scientists are tracking the debris from last week's satellite crash to determine the risk it poses to the many science and communications satellites in Earth orbit, including the Hubble Space Telescope. The debris also slightly raised the chances of debris damaging the International Space Station, which orbits the Earth at an altitude of about 220 miles (354 km) - much lower than the satellite crash site - but the increase in risk is relatively minor, NASA officials have said.