John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
It had launched a scientific or military satellite, depending on which side you believe.
On Monday night, John Arnold drove 180 miles into the Montana countryside to take long-exposure photos of the aurora borealis. While setting up his camera he happened to turn around and that's when saw it: a giant ball of flame creeping through the sky right at him.
"At first, it almost appeared suspended," says Arnold, a 48-year-old fly-fishing guide. "It took me a second to realize that it was coming at me and what it was." Then, as the object moved in front of his vision, it began to break up: first into a couple of pieces, then into dozens of bright shards and long tongues of orange fire.
"[It wasn't] white like a normal meteor," he says. "But the slow speed was the most striking thing about it. ... You also expect noise when you see something like that, and it was dead quiet. It was like slow-motion with the sound off."
Arnold had the presence of mind to quickly aim and record a 20-second exposure of the silent flock of flame soaring beneath the stars. Here's another shot of it drifting off into the auroras:
What Arnold and legions of others in western America saw was much rarer than a meteor. It was the body of a rocket that had launched a Chinese scientific or military satellite (depending on which side you believe) back in December. The thing had served its purpose and now was embracing death the way we all would love to: via a spectacular immolation in the earth's atmosphere.
The American Meteor Society received roughly 200 sightings stretching from the Southwest into Canada. (And Canada would be where the cremated rocket would have landed if any of it survived reentry, according to a satellite expert.) "Nutty, was not expecting that... even called the nonemergency dispatch to make sure everything was 'ok,'" wrote one AMS observer. Others dubbed it "pretty freaking cool," "totally awesome!" and "the single most spectacular thing I have ever seen in the sky, possibly only eclipsed by [Halley's] comet."
The rocket's extended swan song gave several folks the chance to film it:
It pops up around the 0:08 mark in this gorgeous footage of the spinning sky-dome: