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YouTube user Ian Norman captured this view of the fireball in the skies over Alabama Hills, Calif. (Credit: Ian Norman via YouTube)
YouTube user Ian Norman captured this view of the fireball in the skies over Alabama Hills, Calif. (Credit: Ian Norman via YouTube)

A bright streak in the sky generated hundreds of meteor sighting reports from Southern California to British Columbia, but it didn’t take long for the flash to be traced to the re-entry of a Chinese rocket stage.

The fireball was seen across a wide swath of the western United States between 9:30 and 10 p.m. PT Wednesday. More than a dozen Washington state observers on the east side of the Cascades filed reports with the American Meteor Society. But Western Washington? Not so much, probably because of sighting angles as well as sky conditions.

The fireball’s trajectory matched up with the track of a second-stage booster from a Chinese Long March 7 rocket that was launched on Monday. This launch sent up several experiments and satellites, but it also served as an initial flight test for a vehicle that’s expected to send payloads to China’s present and future space stations.

The U.S. military’s Joint Space Operations Center confirmed that the rocket stage fell through the atmosphere and broke up as it passed over California and Nevada, heading eastward.

By coincidence, the re-entry took place just as the Delta Aquarid meteor shower was nearing its peak. The rate could rise to as high as 20 meteors per hour under peak viewing conditions before dawn on Friday. For more about seeing the Delta Aquarids, take a look at Sky & Telescope’s preview.

The Alpha Capricornid meteor shower is due to reach its peak over the weekend – and then there’s the Perseids, the summer’s most popular meteor shower. The Perseids are due to reach their peak on the night of Aug. 12-13, with the moon out of the way during prime time in the wee hours of Aug. 13. For more about maximizing your meteor viewing experience, check out our Perseid guide from last year.

While you’re waiting for the meteor show, feast your eyes on these views of the Long March fireball, captured by observers across the West:

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