Burning Soviet Space Junk Lights Up Skies Over Hawaii

An average of one cataloged piece of space junk falls back to Earth each day.

People across the Aloha State gazed up in wonder Sunday as a cluster of fireballs illuminated the night sky -- the result of a decades-old Russian satellite re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

The Cosmos 1315 satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1981, broke up over Hawaii at 11:02 p.m. local time. The Keck Observatory on Hawaii's Big Island caught a glimpse of the satellite streaking across the night sky.

Gary Cobb, a resident of Arizona, was walking along Waikiki Beach when the mysterious lights streaked overhead. He told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser newspaper that the event lasted less than seven seconds. 

"It looked like a big shooting star or an airplane, and then it started breaking up and had a long tail behind it," Cobb said. "If you watch an airplane flying over you, I'd say it was going seven to eight times faster." 

Richard Wainscoat, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii, told Hawaii News Now that when objects start to re-enter the atmosphere, they are moving at about 18,000 miles per hour.

"A lot of it is going to get vaporized but if there are really big pieces then some of them may make it down to the earth's surface," he said. 

The Cosmos 1315 was a Soviet surveillance satellite launched from the Plesetsk cosmodrome on Aug. 14, 1981.  

According to NASA, there are more than 20,000 pieces of orbital debris -- man-made objects in orbit that no longer serve a useful function. Over the past 50 years, an average of one cataloged piece of debris fell back to Earth each day. 

Upcoming space junk re-entry predictions are closely monitored and tracked, making the sport of space-junk watching accessible to anyone. 

“I really encourage people to go out and look to the sky tonight and maybe you get lucky and see one of these, and keep an eye on the predictions and maybe you get lucky in the future,” Wainscoat told KITV News

Also on HuffPost:

Perseid Meteor Shower Pictures