December 2, 2001
Sandia Scientist Doubts Space Junk Lit Sky
The Associated Press
Speculation abounded Sunday over what lit up the sky with brilliant streaks of light seen Saturday night from New Mexico to Nebraska.
In Hastings, Neb., meteorologist Larry Wirth of the National Weather Service reported that the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, reported to the Federal Aviation Administration in Minneapolis that space debris had broken up in the atmosphere.
NORAD, based in Colorado Springs, told CNN the disintegrating object had been a Russian SL-12 rocket stage re-entering Earth's atmosphere and that it posed no danger. The bit of junk apparently fell from orbit. There were no immediate reports of impacts.
Messages were left by The Associated Press seeking additional comment from NORAD late Saturday and on Sunday.
Dick Spalding, a senior engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, said the lab hadn't determined what caused the streaks, which were reported at 9:16 p.m. MST Saturday.
Spalding, who specializes in satellite sensor research, said a camera on the roof of a Sandia research building recorded the flash. The object may have been heading from above Alamogordo on a line that passed over Albuquerque, he said. For the Sandia camera, the flash lasted only about a second, not enough to tell what caused it, Spalding said. But judging by the brightness of the event, it would seem more likely to have been meteoroid activity, he said.
"Very often space junk doesn't create the brightness," he said. "If I was to guess, I'd say it's not space junk because of the apparent brightness that it got."
The object flared, he noted.
"I think flares are more related to meteoroids coming into the atmosphere rather than to space junk," Spalding said.
Sandia also operates two additional cameras in the southern part of the state, and those cameras will be checked Monday, he said, to see if they produced any clearer result than the one attained Saturday at Kirtland Air Force Base, where Sandia is located.
"We've had extremely good correlation from those cameras," he said. "They should have had a really good view of it. That might allow us to put a little bit better estimate of the track."
A Federal Aviation Administration office in Oklahoma City reported receiving several calls Saturday night that there "appeared to be a meteor shower here in Oklahoma City." The FAA official declined to be identified.
Neither the Kirtland nor the Cannon Air Force bases in New Mexico reported anything being tracked.
The Associated Press in Oklahoma received telephone calls about the lights from Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Enid, Edmond, Owasso, Shawnee and McAlester. Broadcasters reported the lights were seen as far away as Denison, Texas, and Wichita, Kan.
A dispatcher at the Kansas Turnpike Authority in Wichita said callers reported the lights from the Oklahoma border to near Kansas City.
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