Mystery fireball that baffled witnesses was likely rocket falling back to Earth

A large, burning object seen breaking up over the prairie provinces Friday night was likely a rocket booster re-entering the Earth's atmosphere after taking supplies to the International Space Station.

Enthusiasts say bright light was probably rocket body used to propel craft to International Space Station

A bright object was seen burning up over southern Saskatchewan and Alberta Friday night. (Becki Bitternose/Facebook)

A large, burning object seen breaking up over the Prairie provinces Friday night was likely a rocket booster re-entering Earth's atmosphere after taking supplies to the International Space Station.

People in Saskatchewan and Alberta witnessed a bright light streaking across the sky, with what appeared to be parts breaking up and burning as it fell.

The object was visible across a large swath of Saskatchewan and Alberta, with sightings in Regina, North Battleford, Gravelbourg, Pierceland, Clavet, Zehner and Punnichy, Sask., as well as Medicine Hat, and Seven Persons, Alta.

The event baffled witnesses, who guessed it could have been a plane burning up or a meteor. Some posted videos to social media and on YouTube in their search for answers.

'Fireball' was likely rocket booster re-entry

It now appears the "fireball" was likely the Antares rocket body used to propel the Cygnus spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station.

North American enthusiasts tracking the rocket body online have connected the bright light seen in the Prairies to the timing and location of the re-entry.

According to the Aerospace Corporation, the rocket was launched on Nov. 12 as part of the Cygnus CRS OA-8E ISS resupply mission. 

Its predicted re-entry time was 11:09 p.m. CST on Friday.

CBC News has reached out to the U.S. Strategic Command and to Orbital ATK, which developed the Antares.

Eric Briggs is a volunteer with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. He witnessed the re-entry of a Russian spacecraft component from the Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill, Ont., about 13 years ago.

He said the videos posted online after Friday's event look exactly like what he would expect from the re-entry of a rocket component.

Briggs had also been following the Antares.

"I'd expect to see something flying from west to east, faster than an aircraft at high altitude with a trail following behind it and it appearing to break up into pieces," said Briggs.

Multiple sightings from Alberta and Saskatchewan were reported to the American Meteor Society.
According to the Aerospace Corporation, this was the predicted ground track of the Antares rocket body re-entry from space. (Aerospace.org)

Bright light baffles witnesses

Dallas Bitternose was sitting outside his house on the George Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan when he saw a bright light in the sky coming from the west shortly before midnight.

He initially thought it could be a satellite or a plane coming down because it appeared to be breaking away and sparking as it fell. Bitternose pulled out his phone to make sure he had video evidence.

"When you melt metal it jumps all over when you're melting it, kind of thing, and that's kind of exactly what it was doing," said Bitternose.

"Some was falling off backwards and some was going forwards in front of it."

Bitternose said the fireball travelled west to east and appeared to be higher in the sky than a plane would travel.

Streak moved slowly: witness

Lorne Warkentine, who lives near North Battleford, Sask., also thought the bright light could have been a plane on fire. He watched it streak across the sky through his living room window.

"It was kind of exciting but then you start kind of thinking of things, like what could it really be?" said Warkentine.

He said it was visible for about 20 seconds.

"I thought it was going too slow to be a meteorite or anything. It just wasn't going very fast."