x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 November 2017

From Russia with fireworks: spectacular night visitor to UAE skies likely part of Soyuz space rocket

Experts now think blazing trails in the sky were either supply capsule for the International Space Station or rocket booster

The upper stage of a Soyuz rocket which may have been the source of a fireball seen over the UAE on October 15. The Soyuz carries resupply missions to the International Space Station. Courtesy Energia
The upper stage of a Soyuz rocket which may have been the source of a fireball seen over the UAE on October 15. The Soyuz carries resupply missions to the International Space Station. Courtesy Energia

It’s almost certainly Russian, but space experts are still divided over exactly what it was that sent a huge trail of orange fire over the skies of the UAE on Monday night.

According to Hasan Al Hariri, of the Dubai Astronomy Group, the spectacular firework display was a Progress cargo ship burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere after ending its mission to the International Space Station.

“When I analysed the video it was clear this was falling space debris disintegrating in the atmosphere,” said Mr Al Hariri, discounting first official reports of a meteor.

Unmanned Progress ships are regularly sent to resupply the ISS. “Such modules are guided in such a way that it burns in the air and does not fall into a populated area,” said Mr Al Hariri.

“This was of the Progress module that supplies the International Space Station with water, food and equipment. It is an unmanned vehicle that is totally autonomous, it docks at the station, the equipment is removed and it’s sent back where it burns in the atmosphere.”

The group issued a report saying: "The view was spectacular and last for almost 80 seconds. The space craft disintegrated in the upper atmosphere and broke up into smaller chunks and burned like fireworks."

It added: "The trajectory of the debris was over the Arabian peninsula crossing the UAE and Oman and finally over the Indian Ocean."

However, at least one satellite tracking service reported that the object was the upper stage of a Russian Soyez rocket.

The object, designated 42972 by the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), was said to have come from the successful launch of another Progress module to the ISS on October 14.

Several sites predicted that the third stage of the Soyuz, weighing nearly 2,500kg, was due to re-enter at the time of the sightings in the sky, at just before 7.30pm and on a trajectory that crossed the Arabian Gulf and the UAE.

The Progress module the Soyuz was carrying docked with the ISS on Monday. However, a previous cargo ship had also been docked at the ISS after another launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in July.

Progress MS-06 was launched in July, while Progress MS-07 arrived at the ISS on October 16. It is not yet clear if the space ship launched in July has now been undocked to make way for the new arrival, and could also be the burning object seen over the UAE.

Whatever the cause, the unexplained visitor caused a storm on social media, with photographs and videos widely shared and commented on.

Sightings were reported in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the Northern Emirates, as well as in other Arabian Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

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A reporter for The National observed bright streaks of orange moving approximately north to south from Khalifa City and moving at the speed of an aircraft.

“There appeared to be multiple points of orange light moving together, and in a straight line,” he said.

“At the centre of the cluster one point appeared to be glowing red. The lights were visible for only a few seconds before moving behind a nearby house, and seemingly descending. There was no sound. I have never seen anything like it.”

Other observers noted that the object appeared to disintegrate further as it moved across the sky. It was seen from both Dubai Mall and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

Initial speculation ranged from a large meteor shower, to the break-up of the 8.5-tonne Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace, a Chinese space laboratory, which is expected in the next few months.

Dubai Media Office then entered the discussion, tweeting a report from the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre that: “a meteor has passed through the skies of Dubai."

Neither the Media Office or the Space Centre has made any further comment on the object.

Describing the difference between a meteor shower and falling space debris, Mr Al Hariri said the main contrast was speed.

“The clear evidence of a man-made object and event from a natural occurrence of a meteor fall is that meteor fire balls rush in at very high speed and burn in the atmosphere or explode in the sky leaving a trace of gas behind,” he said.

“A meteor glow would have been much bigger than what people saw last night.”

Space junk regularly burns up in the atmosphere, said Mr Hariri, with two more similar events expected to occur on Wednesday and Thursday although not visible from the UAE.

Debris from a Japanese amateur micro-radio satellite will fall over Australia on Wednesday but will dissipate into ashes in the atmosphere, he said, describing its size as equivalent to a 1.5 litre water bottle.

The next chunk of space debris is part of a protective sheet from the International Space Station that was dislodged during a maintenance spacewalk. This would burn up on Thursday, he said.

“Both are not big enough to be noticed because they will be very small in size and nothing like what was seen on Monday night,” he said.

“Sightings like the one on Monday night are good because people will have more awareness of how to distinguish natural and man-made objects.”

Space treaties now govern the disposal of satellites so both the launch and re-entry are controlled and can be tracked on websites.

“When satellites or equipment are sent into space, the return is also immediately planned. It is governed by treaties so the re-entry and disposal are controlled properly and systematically,” Mr Al Hariri said.

“The debris that people saw burnt up over the Empty Quarter. People were able to see it because the burning happened when it was 140km above the ground. It ignited, burned up, then you could see the pieces move down and it finally disappeared over the Indian Ocean. The dispersal is usually over the ocean and not over populated areas or continent land mass. But the trajectory of this one was such that it could be seen over land. It was seen in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Oman and then the Indian Ocean – that was the path.”

Actual meteor showers that will be visible this year in the UAE will be in mid-November and mid-December.

The Leonid meteor is expected to be a spectacular shooting star through the night sky, while the Geminid is described by astronomers as among the best meteor showers of the year due to the brightness of the meteors as they stream across the sky.

The meteor showers gets their names from the constellations Leo and Gemini.

“This year the Leonid and Geminid meteor showers will be visible because the moon will not be out so this will make it exciting for people to watch. The meteors will be prominently visible. There will be star-gazing parties and trips to the desert organised to explain and simplify the event,” Mr Al Hariri said, while advising enthusiasts not to venture out in to the desert on their own.

“Meteors are seen as fireballs but usually because of light pollution these are not visible. You need to drive at least one-and-a-half hour into the desert where it is totally dark to see the Milky Way. But people should not go on their own to see the meteors because the desert is treacherous at night.”

The best spots to watch the upcoming meteors are areas including Al Qudra Lakes, Jebel Jais, Margham and Liwa.

The group will be announcing spots where it will organise viewings next month.