HELENA — If you were lucky enough to stare up at the stars a few minutes past 10:00 PM Tuesday evening, you may have caught a pretty rare site of space debris burning up in the earth’s atmosphere. But if you weren’t so lucky, you have the multicamera observation dome set on one of the Montana Learning Center’s observation sheds to thank.
“The brighter part where it starts off, you know, that’s the main portion, okay? And then that main portion just starts to break up and then, you know, you get pieces that are just scattering across the sky,” says Ryan Hannahoe, executive director at the Montana Learning Center and the Director of the Astronomy Program.
Hannahoe says that the debris that many saw flying from the SE area of the western Montana sky towards the NW area, was the remnants of a fuel tank from a Russian rocket. That rocket was used to launch a satellite into space around 10 years ago. After fulfilling its duty, it was left to orbit. And after a decade of free fall, the fuel tank made its final descent to earth, traveling approximately anywhere from 18 to 20 thousand miles per hour.
“So, it’s in a constant state of freefall and you know those things eventually do come back and they do come down. So, you know, fortunately for us, you know, entered the earth’s atmosphere over Montana. So, most of western Montana saw it,” says Hannahoe.
Those who had the opportunity to see the fast-moving debris were pretty amazed.
“It was absolutely mesmerizing. It was kind of show-stopping. It was that neat,” says Kari K., a witness to the event.
“It was more of aha moment than scared, I suppose. We just wanted to know what it was,” says James Young, another witness to the event.
While a lot of that debris gets burned up entering our atmosphere, Hannahoe cautions folks who may happen upon any unburned remains.
“If it did and you find a piece or you’re lucky enough to see the wreckage, don’t go near it because it is harmful and contact local authorities to deal with it,” says Hannahoe.