Fireballs in Nova Scotia skies were Atlas V rocket breaking up on reentry
2 bright fireballs were observed around 6 p.m. AT on Sunday
If you happened to be in the right place at the right time on Sunday night in Nova Scotia, you may have seen two fireballs light up southern skies.
It turns out the fireballs weren't meteors. They were sections of a rocket booster that broke up as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere shortly after its launch in Florida.
"There were particles falling off the front. The one that was on top was bluish and another was an orange-reddish colour," said Michael Boschat, an astrophotographer who spotted the flashes of light.
"The top one faded first, and the one on the bottom flared up to about as bright as the full moon."
Before 6 p.m. Sunday night, Boschat was setting up his camera and telescope at his Halifax home. He saw the fiery streaks appear and managed to snap a clear picture of the unexpected sighting just in time.
He said the rockets were visible for about 10 seconds.
Boschat, a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, emailed a picture to the group. After a series of back-and-forths on a long mailing list, it was confirmed that it was the first stage of an Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral to send the Cygnus spacecraft on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).
Boschat says one member of the mailing list works at NASA's Ames Research Centre and simply replied to Boschat's spotting:
"You lucky S.O.B."
'I was pretty happy'
Boschat, who has been a research technician at Dalhousie's Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science for 23 years, said some casual observers might assume the fireballs were just meteors — especially since the Geminid meteor shower is expected to peak this weekend.
"You'd never see fireballs travelling sort of parallel to each other, even during a meteor shower," Boschat explains.
The Cygnus spacecraft was launched by the private company Orbital ATK. It carried more equipment, science experiments and supplies to the ISS, including Christmas presents for the crew.
It was the Cygnus's first trip since a failed launch last year.
For Boschat, the sighting was a present in and of itself.
"I was pretty happy, kind of lucky," he said.