Although Falcon 9 rocket successfully delivered 60 Starlink satellites to orbit last month, the rocket’s second stage didn’t deorbit properly after completing the mission. The second stage is the smaller, upper part of the Falcon 9 rocket that separates from the main booster to take satellites to their intended orbit. While the main booster returns to Earth for a landing (so SpaceX can refurbish and reuse it on future launches), once the second stage has completed its role in the mission, it is either intentionally destroyed or left to linger in orbit.
Typically it conducts a “deorbit burn” that sends the craft on a safe trajectory to burn up in the atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean. But this time, something went wrong: According to Ars Technica, “there was not enough propellant after this launch to ignite the Merlin engine and complete the burn. So the propellant was vented into space, and the second stage was set to make a more uncontrolled re-entry into the atmosphere.” So, instead of burning up over the ocean, the rocket stage ended up breaking up in the sky over the Pacific Northwest — the fiery display visible not only from Washington but also from surrounding states and parts of Canada — just after 9 p.m. local time on Thursday, March 25, or midnight EDT (0400 GMT) on Friday, March 26.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, calls it “a bit of a puzzle” that the stage wasn’t de-orbited under control back on March 4, telling the Verge that it “looks like something went wrong, but SpaceX has said nothing about it. However, reentries of this kind happen every couple of weeks. It’s just unusual that it happens over a densely populated area, just because that’s a small fraction of the Earth.”
Read more of this story at Slashdot.