Monday night’s asteroid that appeared to explode over Grand Cayman may have been the body of a Russian rocket, incinerating as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, tracing an arc from Honduras to Cuba.
The rocket, whose trajectory across the night sky was tracked by Satflare.com, launched a Russian satellite, dubbed 39033 by officials at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, in December last year.
The booster, SL-14 R/B, also remained in orbit, although decaying slowly, culminating in re-entry on Monday night above Honduras.
Steven Banks, local hobbyist and satellite aficionado, said the fact that the object moved slowly through the sky indicated it may have been “space junk” rather than an asteroid.
An asteroid travels between 30,000 miles per hour and 50,000 mph, he said. By contrast, SL-14 R/B moves more sedately, circling the Earth every 88 minutes, completing approximately 16 revolutions per day and varying between 622 miles and 646 miles from the planet’s surface.
Once it enters the atmosphere, however, it slows substantially, tumbling and distending, moving “much slower than an asteroid”, Mr. Banks said.
“The reports were that people observed it for 10 seconds. An asteroid would not last nearly that long,” he said.
Satellite-tracking maps indicate that the rocket entered the atmosphere at a elevation between 50,000 feet and 120,000 feet over the coast of northern Honduras, descending as it passed west of the Cayman Islands, headed for Cienfuegos, Cuba.
The body measured between 15 feet and 25 feet in diameter, and was about 50 feet long, Mr. Banks said, “which is why we got such a display”.
While details remain sketchy, Major Beth Smith, spokeswoman for NORAD, said officials at California’s Offut Air Force Base had referred inquiries to “either spacetrack.org”, or, citing “additional information”, “the Russians at Ros Cosmos”.
“The tracking number and information,” she said, correlated with the body and its location.
Officials at both the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Cayman Islands Airports Authority were unaware of the Russian rocket, and unable to say if space debris – pegged at about 134,000 pieces in orbit – presented a threat to aviation.
“I am looking if there is a framework of regulations about this,” said Anthony Philbin, acting chief of the Communications Section at ICAO’s Montreal headquarters. “But with real-life issues of falling debris, it’s hard to say because it’s such a random event.”
Acting CEO at the CIAA Kerith McCoy expressed concern, but minimised the danger: “Generally, an object of massive energy falling unrestricted from the heavens is an inherent threat to aviation. Was this event such a case?
“Clearly not,” he said, “because we have not heard of it destroying any planes.”
Echoing the ICAO’s Mr. Philbin, local airports authority business development and marketing manager Caren Thompson acknowledged sparse information on the subject, saying “we are clearly not well-versed in the dynamics of such a scenario,” but breathed a similar sigh of relief: “I would say that we were fortunate that there was no such impact from this uncontrollable situation.”
Predictions abounded last week, however, for the Monday night pass of a massive asteroid, pegged at “the size of five football fields”.
Dubbed “2003 DZ15”, the asteroid was discovered in February 2003 by Arizona’s Lowell Observatory and San Diego’s Near Earth Asteroid Tracking at Mount Palomar.
Hours before Monday’s event, Space.com reported that “an asteroid as large as five football fields will zoom by Earth tonight, and you can watch the close approach live from the comfort of your home.
“The near-Earth asteroid will come within 2.2 million miles of our planet,” the site said,” about nine times farther than the distance between Earth and the moon.
“There is no chance that 2003 DZ15 will strike Earth on this pass,” the site indicated, easing worries, if dispelling local observations that the asteroid had broken up in the Cayman skies.
Five days earlier, another site, SOTT [Signs of the Times], reported a pending “close shave”, saying “the 152-metre asteroid 2003 DZ15 makes a pass by our fair planet at 3.5 million kilometres distant. This is over nine times the Earth-Moon distance and poses no threat to our world.”
Monday’s approach, the site said, “would be its closest this century, “although it will make a pass nearly as close to the Earth in 2057 on February 12th”.