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Russian military satellite launch spawns space-junk fireball over Australia (video)

Russia launched a military satellite to orbit on Friday (May 22), and the mission generated plenty of action in the downward direction as well.

A four-stage Soyuz-2 rocket lifted off from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northwestern Russia early Friday morning, carrying a classified payload that's believed to be the fourth satellite for the country's EKS OiBU missile-warning network, according to RussianSpaceWeb.com.

The Soyuz successfully delivered the satellite to its intended orbit, the Russian space agency Roscosmos announced Friday afternoon

The rocket's third stage was expected to re-enter Earth's atmosphere over southeastern Australia, with any surviving debris from that part of the booster targeted to splash down in the Pacific Ocean south of Tasmania, RussianSpaceWeb.com reported. 

Many people in the region, from central Victoria to northern Tasmania, saw a brilliant fireball overhead at the appropriate time, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported. This was no coincidence; they were witnessing the fiery death of the Soyuz's third stage.

"The slow speed, about 6 kilometres per second, is a very telltale sign that it is space junk," Jonti Horner, an astrophysics professor at the University of Southern Queensland, told the ABC. (Asteroids and other space rocks that slam into our atmosphere are going much faster than that.)

Not every hunk of space junk comes down as quickly as this piece of the Soyuz did. Indeed, Earth orbit is littered with dead satellites, spent rocket bodies and other debris. NASA estimates that there are 500,000 pieces of junk up there at least as big as a marble. And even such small objects can cause serious damage if they hit a spacecraft, considering that bodies in low-Earth orbit zip around our planet at about 17,500 mph (28,160 km/h).

A Soyuz-2 rocket launches a missile-warning satellite from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia on May 22, 2020.

A Soyuz-2 rocket launches a missile-warning satellite from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia on May 22, 2020. (Image credit: Roscosmos)

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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