Chinese space junk falls to Earth over Southern California, creating spectacular fireball

A big piece of Chinese space junk crashed to Earth over Southern California early Tuesday morning (April 2), putting on quite a show for observers in the Golden State.

The fall created a blazing fireball witnessed by people from the Sacramento area all the way down to San Diego, according to the American Meteor Society (AMS). As of Tuesday afternoon, 81 people had reported sightings of the event to the AMS

The hunk of space debris was the orbital module of China's Shenzhou 15 spacecraft, according to astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell. It had been up there for a while; Shenzhou 15 launched three astronauts to the nation's Tiangong space station in November 2022.

Jennifer M. captured this photo of a fireball in Earth's skies from Phelan, California on April 2, 2024 and forwarded it to the American Meteor Society. The fireball was caused by the reentry of China's Shenzhou 15 orbital module, experts say. (Image credit: Jennifer M./American Meteor Society)

The Shenzhou orbital module, which weighs about 3,300 pounds (1,500 kilograms), provides extra room for astronauts and science experiments in space. It's not designed to come back to Earth safely at the end of its mission; the Shenzhou reentry module is built to do that, with astronauts on board.

Related: Watch a Chinese rocket booster fall from space and explode near a house in southern China

Of course, most folks who saw the fireball streak across the sky around 1:40 a.m. local California time (4:40 a.m. EDT; 0840 GMT) didn't know what it was.

Some thought it may have been a piece of SpaceX hardware, which was a reasonable guess: A Falcon 9 rocket had launched 22 of the company's Starlink internet satellites from Vandenberg Space Force Base on California's central coast about six hours earlier.

Casey B. captured this photo of a fireball from San Diego on April 2, 2024 and forwarded it to the American Meteor Society. (Image credit: Casey B./American Meteor Society)

The burning debris couldn't have been the Falcon 9's first stage; that piece of hardware lands safely after launch and is reused. But the workhorse rocket's upper stage is disposable.

The Shenzhou 15 orbital module was hardly the first big piece of Chinese space junk to crash back to Earth in dramatic fashion, nor was it the biggest.

The 23-ton (21-metric-ton) core stage of the nation's powerful Long March 5B rocket, whose launches helped build Tiangong, routinely fall to Earth in an uncontrolled fashion.

These debris crashes have drawn criticism from a variety of people in the space community, including the heads of NASA and the European Space Agency, who have decried them as irresponsible and potentially dangerous.

Originally posted on

Mike Wall Senior Writer
Michael was a science writer for the Idaho National Laboratory and has been an intern at, The Salinas Californian newspaper, and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. He has also worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz.