SALT LAKE CITY — Monday at 10:54 p.m., many Utahns spotted a fireball with a long tail burning through the sky. People saw it from Arizona to Canada, and social media initially started to buzz about a meteorite. It turned out to be Chinese space junk falling to Earth.
"It's just cool to see something like that," said Mark Wetzel, a KSL-5 photojournalist who caught nearly a minute of the event on camera. He was headed to the KSL station on Highway 89, near Lagoon in Farmington, when he first spotted the light far away in the southern sky.
"A few seconds later, I noticed there was an orange trail behind it," he said. "But it's still way off in the distance."
At first he thought it was a plane's vapor trail. When he saw sparks coming from the tail, he pulled over. He pulled out his camera and started shooting, worried that he would miss it.
"I jump out of the car, and I scramble to the back," Wetzel said. "It was obviously something from outer space; it was obviously something that was breaking up. I had no idea if it was a satellite or if it was a spacecraft."
Wetzel tracked it with his video camera for nearly a minute, so he said he was pretty sure it was not a meteorite.
"Initially I'm thinking, 'Get the shot, get the shot, get the shot,' because that's what we are trained to do. Once I had everything set, I'm watching and thinking this is just cool."
Seth Jarvis, director of Clark Planetarium, said the easiest way to tell the difference between a meteorite and space junk is the speed that it's traveling and also the duration of the event.
"The giveaway is that it was slow," said Jarvis.
Patrick Wiggins, NASA/JPL solar system ambassador to Utah, confirmed for KSL that the object was a rocket body used in the launch of Yaogan Weixing-26, a Chinese satellite that was launched in December 2014. Wiggins said the rocket body was about 149 kilometers above Earth when it was over Utah.
Jarvis said what people saw a few thousand feet above the ground a few hundred miles to the north of the Wasatch Front was that rocket booster re-entering the atmosphere.
"It's doing 15,000 mph. At that speed, the air piles up in front of it, compresses, and the temperature gets up into the thousands of degrees," he said. "It's just like a blowtorch being taken to this thing, and it just vaporizers above the sky."
The American Meteor Society reports people saw it in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, California and Canada.
"It's really unlikely that anything survived that fiery re-entry," Jarvis said.
He pointed out there's a lot of junk in the low earth orbit: old satellites, rocket boosters and other space debris.
"We've seen lots of these things before. As there is more and more stuff up in space, there's going to be more and more of this," Jarvis said, referring to the fiery space junk.
He said we should be grateful for the items that fall back to earth and burn up, and clear the clutter from space.
"It's the stuff that's junk, and a little bit higher, that will be up there for centuries that we should be worried about," he said.
Contributing: Martha Ostergar