Russian rocket burns up in atmosphere off East Coast

Thursday, September 6, 2001

Associated Press WriterA Russian rocket that had orbited the Earth since 1975 re-entered the atmosphere Thursday, its fiery debris creating a spectacular early-morning light show along much of the East Coast.

"It was kind of sparkling a little bit, almost like it was on fire," said John Yeomans, who saw it at 6 a.m. as he and his wife were drinking coffee at home in Smyrna, Del. "It left just an incredible trail."

The SL3 rocket body re-entered the atmosphere over the Atlantic Ocean about 100 miles off Delaware, said Navy Cmdr. Rod Gibbons, a spokesman for the U.S. Space Command at Colorado Springs, Colo.

"The object was not designed to survive re-entry" and probably burned up before any pieces could reach the ground, Gibbons said.

People from Massachusetts to North Carolina reported seeing the fiery return of the rocket, which put up a satellite 26 years ago.

The National Weather Service and the Naval Observatory at first speculated that the object was a meteor. Naval Observatory spokesman Geoff Chester later concurred that it was a Russian rocket.

"The satellite itself came down in 1992," Chester said. "And this is basically the gas tank that got it up there."

Gibbons said the rocket was one of 8,300 manmade objects the center is tracking in space. Some 17,000 such objects have re-entered Earth's atmosphere since the late 1950s, he said.

The center began stepping up its surveillance of the rocket a week ago. Gibbons said the Space Command generally cannot predict when and where an object will re-enter the atmosphere.

Charles Tekula, 49, a fisherman on New York's Long Island, was with his son when he saw the sky light up.

"At first I thought it was a jetliner coming toward us, but then I saw a smoke trail," he said. "My son said it looked like a big, slow-moving firework across the sky. We were speechless. It was the most fantastic thing I'd ever seen."

Yeomans, a captain with the Delaware State Police, said he saw a dark mass that gave off a reddish-white glow, followed by a grayish smoky trail that lingered several minutes after the object faded from sight.

"It was weird, totally weird," he said.

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