Late Wednesday night, something that looked like a fireball careened over cities in the western U.S. People absolutely lost it — but in a chill, west-coast way.
What onlookers assumed was a meteor was actually debris from a Chinese rocket, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told the Los Angeles Times. Parts of the rocket had reentered Earth's atmosphere after spending a month in low orbit.
According to McDowell, it's rare so many people get to see something like this. Something this large usually only enters the atmosphere in an uncontrolled way about once a year.
One witness, who recorded a video on his phone, said the footage doesn't do justice to the rocket reentering the atmosphere at about 18,000 miles per hour, shedding hunks of debris in its long-tailed wake.
The rocket reentry did happen to coincide with the timing of the Delta Aquerid meteor shower —but according to McDowell, meteors are fast and debris-less. In other words, they don't look like exploded cars flying off a cliff in slow motion.