MYSTERY BURN Last night at the Siding Springs Observatory in New South Wales, Australia, astrophotographer Gordon Garradd witnessed a glowing cloud in the sky. "It looked like a rocket burn." He took this picture at 17:30 UT on Feb. 19th: "I've seen rocket burns before and there is no doubt the cloud is rocket exhaust," says Garradd. "However, this is much larger than any I have seen before, such as Cassini. It makes me wonder if I saw a controlled burn or an explosion."
Australian astronomer Ray Palmer was photographing the Southern Cross from his observatory in Western Australia on Feb. 19th when a flaming plume cut across the Milky Way. "I had no idea what it was," he says. "It was moving very slowly and I was able to track it for 35 minutes."
In mid-apparition the object exploded. Gordon Garradd of New South Wales photographed an expanding cloud filled with specks of debris. Tim Thorpe of South Australia saw it, too. "Quite a surreal scene," he says.
What was it? It was a mystery for almost 24 hours until satellite expert Daniel Deak matched the trajectory of the plume in Palmer's photo with the orbit of a derelict rocket booster--"a Briz-M, catalog number 28944."
One year ago, the Briz-M sat atop a Russian Proton rocket that left Earth on Feb. 28, 2006, carrying an Arabsat-4A communications satellite. Shortly after launch, the rocket malfunctioned, leaving the satellite in the wrong orbit and the Briz-M looping around Earth partially-filled with fuel. On Feb. 19, 2007, for reasons unknown, the fuel tanks ruptured over Australia.
Jon P. Boers of the USAF Space Surveillance System confirms the ID and notes "later, on the other side of the world, our radar saw 500+ pieces in that orbit." Today the count is up to 1111 fragments. "[We're seeing] more fragments as the cloud expands," he explains.