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Satellite debris lights up the sky

DOD
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  Watch Pentagon video
  of the missile intercept.


About three dozen skywatchers in western Canada went out to see Wednesday night's total lunar eclipse and got a surprise bonus: the fireworks show created by the Pentagon's shootdown of a falling spy satellite.

Other aftereffects, including what may have been the plume created by the satellite's burning fuel, were seen back in Hawaii - near where the missile was launched for the orbital interception.

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's Prince George Center, located about 470 miles (750 kilometers) north of Vancouver, had long planned a public viewing event for the eclipse, said Brian Battersby, the group's Webmaster. A dozen members of the club and about twice that many non-members showed up, even though the viewing conditions were less than ideal.

"The clouds were unfortunately covering the eclipse for most of it," he told me.

Then there was a break in the clouds to the west. "My girlfriend turned around to look at the Andromeda Galaxy, which is named after our daughter," Battersby joked. "As she was looking for that, she noticed something and said, 'What's that!?'"

She and the other skywatchers spotted what appeared to be a persistent meteor trail, zooming from the southwest in their direction.

"I started noticing more of them, quite a few trails that we saw," Battersby said. "Six or so bright ones, and there must have been a dozen dimmer ones. They came in waves. It was quite a long stream of debris, not just a couple of isolated meteors."

It didn't take long to figure out that the "meteors" were almost certainly bits of debris from the impact between the spy satellite and a missile launched from a U.S. Navy cruiser thousands of miles away, near Hawaii. Satellite trackers knew that the spacecraft's projected path would take it over Canada, and the debris fell along the same path.

Unfortunately, the cameras had already been put away when the fireworks began, due to the disappointment over the eclipse, Battersby said. And the Prince George observers appeared to be in just the right place at the right time. Skywatchers in British Columbia's Okanagan region as well as Edmonton in the neighboring province of Alberta reported seeing no debris, Battersby said. It's not yet clear whether there were sightings farther north, either in Alaska or Canada.

There were some sightings back in Hawaii, however - and we're not just talking about the high-resolution missile video made by military spotters. On the SpaceWeather.com Web site, Maui photographer Rob Ratkowski reported a different kind of close encounter:

"I had my doubts about getting any images. I went to our site on Haleakala w/ Dr. JD Armstrong and pointed my 770mm refractor towards the direction believed to be the correct area. I spotted a fast moving point of light and began shooting frames. I knew that I had something and it was at the time the Navy stated. Also the AMOS 3.67 meter scope was also pointed in the same direction as mine and it tracked to the north and down what I believe was the path of the destroyed satellite. We then set up to shoot the eclipse as seen from Maui. Towards the end of the eclipse we noticed a long faint trail over the area of the satellite intercept that we believe to be the hydrazine vapor, it persisted into darkness. A very interesting evening on Maui."

Adrian Wyld / CP / AP
A sequence of images taken every 20 minutes shows
the progress of Wednesday's total lunar eclipse.


Was it merely a lucky accident that the satellite intercept happened to occur during the total phase of Wednesday's lunar eclipse?

I'm sure the skywatching conditions weren't the top thing on President Bush's mind when he gave the go-ahead for the satellite intercept. There's no doubt, however, that the eclipse brought out more observers than might otherwise be watching for debris. And as any meteor-watcher knows, it's much easier to see what's going on in a dark sky when the moon's glare is gone.

Did you see the eclipse? Were you a Far North observer who spotted "meteors" during the same time frame, around 10:30 to 10:50 p.m. ET Wednesday? Feel free to add your reports as comments below.

If you completely missed the big show, you can get a vicarious thrill by checking out SpaceWeather.com's eclipse gallery and interactive photo map. You'll find a goodly number of videos of the eclipse over on YouTube. I particularly like this time-lapse video that shows you the progression from full moon to fully eclipsed moon. And if you want to learn more about the science behind lunar eclipses, check out our "Inconstant Moon" interactive.

Although we won't see another total lunar eclipse until 2010, there's a total solar eclipse coming up Aug. 1, and you can bet we'll have lots of coverage of that event. In the meantime, be prepared by clicking through our "Moonshadow" interactive.

Update for 2:20 p.m. ET: Space.com has its own take on the shootdown sightings, with quotes from Ratkowski as well as a link to the See-Sat-L online forum, the place to be if you're a satellite fan. Smaller pieces of satellite debris may be coming down over the next day or two. It might be hard to distinguish them from run-of-the-mill meteors, but if anyone can figure it out, See-Sat-L's legions will.

This page on the Zarya Web site contains some great information about the spy satellite's ground track - illustrating why Prince George was in such a prime position for seeing the debris and showing the track(s) along which people could expect to see debris. People in Michigan, for example, were most likely to see debris during the third orbit after interception, which was significantly later than 10:30 p.m.

Update for 4:40 p.m. ET: We've just put up a First Person gallery of lunar eclipse photos that highlights images from msnbc.com users - and that means you! Take a look, vote for your favorite picture, and feel free to submit your own.