What lit up the sky over San Antonio Saturday morning?

The bright streak of light may have been space junk falling into Earth's atmosphere

KSAT Meteorologist Sarah Spivey explains that the light show was probably due to space junk.
KSAT Meteorologist Sarah Spivey explains that the light show was probably due to space junk.

SAN ANTONIO – Shortly after 2 a.m. Saturday, July 18, folks around San Antonio began to notice a bright streak of light leaving a trail across the night sky.

Many people thought they were getting a glance at Comet Neowise. However, this event occurred too late in the evening and was not in the right place in the sky to be Neowise.

This led our meteorologists to conclude the light show was most likely space junk falling into Earth’s atmosphere.

What is space junk?

Space debris or “junk” is the collection of man-made objects that exists in low Earth orbit.

This consists of discontinued satellites, discarded rocket stages, and other objects that collide and break off in space.

According to NOAA, 200 to 400 pieces of space junk fall back into Earth’s atmosphere. That’s nearly one per day on average.

Why not a meteor?

Meteors travel millions of miles before they get to Earth, gaining tremendous speed. Unless the meteor is unusually very large, a meteor will move quickly across the sky. Think about if you’ve ever seen a “shooting star.”

It usually disappears before you can show anyone else! Notice that in the video above, the object appears to last in the sky for quite a while.

This can be explained by the fact that space junk enters the Earth’s atmosphere at a relatively slower speed, taking a long time to burn away and break apart.

Is space junk dangerous?

Getting hit by falling space debris is very, very unlikely. Most junk will burn up completely upon re-entry.

Even if an object survives to the surface, it will most likely land in the ocean - which makes up 70% of the Earth’s surface - or on land that is sparsely populated.

While humans on Earth may not have to worry about space junk, it’s a different story for unmanned and manned spacecraft. According to NASA, the average impact speed of tiny space debris is 6 miles per second. That’s faster than a bullet, and can do serious damage to satellites and spacecrafts!

Do you have pictures or videos of Saturday morning’s light show? Post them to our KSAT Connect page, and they just may be featured on-air and online!

About the Author:

Sarah Spivey is a San Antonio native who grew up watching KSAT long before she began to think about a career in television.