Scientist Weighs In On Space Debris

By: Wendy Enneking Email
By: Wendy Enneking Email

Many are wondering what caused a series of flashes in the sky and booms in the southern Kentucky region. Local officials attribute the reports to falling space debris stemming from the collision of two satellites earlier this week. However, according to a physics professor at Eastern Kentucky University, it's likely too early for debris from that incident to be entering earth's atmosphere.

Dr. Marco Ciocca is an associate physics professor at EKU. He says it could be months before debris from the collision of an American and Russian satellite on Tuesday enters the atmosphere. He told NEWSFIRST that in such an event, the debris doesn't simply fall out of its orbit. It will either vaporize or stay in orbit for some time before falling into earth's atmosphere. He adds that once such debris enters the atmosphere, it usually burns up or is too small to make a significant impact.

Other experts at the planetarium at EKU say there is constantly debris from space entering earth's atmosphere. They say the "boom" some residents reported could have been the result of such debris falling towards the earth's surface.

As for the "flashes" that were reported, Dr. Ciocca says there are some types of satellites that have reflective surfaces. These are called iridium satellites and they emit flashes in the sky when the sun's rays strike them at the right angle. He says many astronomy hobbyists even track those sorts of satellites.

NASA tracks space debris. The aeronautic agency estimates some 18,000 pieces of space debris are in orbit at varying altitudes. With all that debris, there is an increased risk of encounters with space craft including the International Space Station and the Hubble Telescope.


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Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station.
  • by David Jones Location: alabama on Mar 24, 2010 at 05:18 PM
    i have several pieses of space debris that i have been collecting for years, when i first found it with my meto detector i thought it was alumium fiol that was burnt and after a while i realized what it was and stater saving it id realy diferent and wish there was a little value to it.
  • by deb Location: ky on Feb 17, 2009 at 05:55 AM
    Ok Doc, was it or wasnt it debris? We can all get on here and give (WHAT WE THINK), BUT WE WANT FACTS! What was all the noise and lights?
  • by starrynights Location: Jackson Co. on Feb 17, 2009 at 05:31 AM
    Ok, Bob. What was the boom and the streaking light about then? This was seen in southern TN and SC. WKYT and WYMT did a fine job in reporting the different theories by local and national experts. None of the "big" stations bothered to cover this nor ask residents about what was seen, heard and felt. What some are stating as fact is merely speculation.
  • by RC Location: Staffordsville on Feb 16, 2009 at 08:47 PM
    If this guy is a "scientist", I am an astronaut.
  • by Henry Location: Lexington on Feb 16, 2009 at 08:12 AM
    The only thing the scientist will conclude is that they need $100M from the Stinulus porkbarrel to study the subject
  • by Jonathan Location: Annapolis on Feb 15, 2009 at 08:45 PM
    Did Dr. Ciocca ever consider that a glancing blow could have pushed one satellite's debris down and the other up? This still accounts for laws of conservation momentum and can explain why debris is re-entering the atmosphere earlier than might be expected.
  • by Bob Location: Lexington on Feb 15, 2009 at 08:33 PM
    FYI... other news agencies including Discovery magazine are stating that nothing fell on Kentucky Friday night referencing your faulty article as evidence. They state the the people in Kentucky only saw an orbiting satellite flashing as a result of paragraph 4 from your article above. Crack reporting job there WKYT.
  • by Mike Location: Keavy on Feb 15, 2009 at 04:26 PM
    I was in my living room that evening and heard a boom. I looked out of my window and saw a bright orange light. My first thought that night was it was an unusually bright star. I thought about it and remembered thinking it seemed too close to be one. After reading this article, what I heard could have been a sonic boom. The object was north by north west of my location at approximately 330* to 350* true. If you read the previous comment by Dana in Winchester, the object would have been moving northward toward Lexington. If it was a large enough object entering earth's atmosphere, it could conceivably make it such a distance before burning up. It sounds like a spectacular meteorite.
  • by dziban Location: new orleans, la on Feb 15, 2009 at 12:06 PM
    The flashes were certainly not from an Iridium satellite. If this was debris from the collision last week, the reflective antennae on the Iridium sat that was destroyed would have been pulverized and wouldn't be causing the characteristic "Iridium flash." Further, Iridium satellites don't "emit" any light at all; they reflect the sun's light.
  • by Gold Location: Chrishchurch, New Zealand on Feb 15, 2009 at 11:32 AM
    "it could be months before debris from the collision of an American and Russian satellite on Tuesday enters the atmosphere" Err... I never realised that absolute knowledge of all the forces and angles had been published. Without this sort of information a claim like this just couldn't happen.
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