WASHINGTON — What goes up must come down, even 26 years later. And the aged Soviet rocket that came down just before dawn Thursday did so with a glowing, protracted brilliance that startled the early birds who saw it from Massachusetts to North Carolina.
Space junk has never looked so good. As the decaying remains of the 1975 booster reentered the atmosphere shortly before 6 a.m., a huge, pulsing white ball streaked across the sky over the Washington area. Behind it flowed a smoke trail thousands of miles long, which the rising sun illuminated with spectacular drama.
"It was kind of sparkling a little bit, almost like it was on fire," said Delaware State Police Capt. John Yeomans, who saw it at 6 a.m. as he and his wife were drinking coffee at home in Smyrna, Del. "It left just an incredible trail.
"It was weird, totally weird."
The event not only lit up the sky, it lit up telephone lines at radio and television stations, at the U.S. Naval Observatory and even at the U.S. Space Command in Colorado, where throughout the day Army Maj. Barry Venable patiently answered calls seeking details and explanation.
"If you're a space object and want to be noticed," he joked, "I guess you need to reenter on the East Coast at rush hour."
The Soviet SL3 rocket was launched during the Cold War to carry a spy satellite into orbit. According to Geoff Chester at the Naval Observatory, the satellite fell out of orbit in 1992, but the booster--"a big empty gas can" about 20 feet long and as much as 10 feet wide--took its time returning to Earth.
In Woodbridge, Va., medical photographer Andy Morataya was late for work and hustling to his car when he looked up and wondered what he was seeing. The object was "as bright as the light coming off of a full moon," he said, and its single solid light meant it couldn't be an airplane on a runway approach.
Michael Smith of Annapolis, Md., was heading to meet his morning running partners.
"The astro was arcing the Chesapeake Bay as I was driving the Naval Academy Bridge," he recounted. Its center was "Day-Glo white" against the slate-colored sky, and its cigar-shaped trail lingered nearly 20 minutes. Smith was struck by the surreal image and beauty. "It was the talk of the group."
Navy Cmdr. Rod Gibbons of the Space Command said the rocket was one of 8,300 man-made objects the center is tracking in space. About 17,000 such objects have reentered Earth's atmosphere since the late 1950s, he said. Officially, the command pegged the rocket reentry at about 100 miles off the coast of Delaware. Venable said that little, if any, of the booster survived its blazing descent.
Venable said no one has ever been struck by debris from reentering objects since Space Command began tracking them.
The military had been following the booster closely and predicting its demise for the past week, although trackers only narrowed their geographic window to a 6,000-mile zone that reached from the North Pole to South America. "Reentry assessment is an inexact science," Venable said, with solar and climatic variables that can greatly affect a final downward trajectory.
The command didn't publicize the coming phenomenon, hence commuters' and runners' early-morning surprise.
But satellite observers in the know were clued in. Three days ago, retired scientist Harro Zimmer began posting his predictions from Berlin on an Internet site, honing the time and location coordinates with "alert updates." He hinted that a sighting in the New York area might be possible.
With his latest message Thursday, he confirmed the rocket's expansive audience, and though his grammar might have lost a little in translation, Zimmer's enthusiasm came through.
"Cosmos 756 RB fiery decayed!" he declared.
Charles Tekula, 49, a fisherman on New York's Long Island, was with his son when he saw the sky light up.
"At first I thought it was a jetliner coming toward us, but then I saw a smoke trail," he said. "My son said it looked like a big, slow-moving firework across the sky. We were speechless. It was the most fantastic thing I'd ever seen."