by Faye Flam
A trio of objects found Spain in early November looked otherworldly enough to capture international headlines. Following sightings of a fireball at dawn on November 3, two black metallic spheres more than 2 feet across turned up in the Southeastern corner of the country. Then a 12-foot strip of metal appeared in a farmer’s field. It looked like space debris but there had been no report from NASA or any of the world’s space agencies that anything was supposed to be reentering the atmosphere at that time. Authorities who track thousands of pieces of space junk said the three mystery objects matched nothing in the known universe.
Some suggested aliens, others a hoax.
It might have remained a mystery forever if not for a small band of highly skilled hobbyists who track satellites, including the classified ones. The space sleuths solved the case using data they keep on the orbits of secret “black” satellites and the rockets used to launch them, the position of the fireball and location of the debris. That led them to identify the likely source of the weird stuff as a U.S. Centaur rocket that had been careening around the planet since 2008 when it was used to boost a spy satellite. Here’s part of a detailed account posted by Ted Molczan, a Toronto-based satellite tracker.
A re-entering Centaur rocket body was the source of three COPV spheres and a large piece of debris, discovered in Spain following pre-dawn sightings of a fireball on Tuesday, November 3, 2015. The Centaur was the upper stage of the Atlas-V rocket launched on March 13, 2008 from Vandenberg AFB, that carried the NROL-28 payload for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. The Centaur had been discarded in a highly elliptical orbit of the Molniya type. It was more than 12 m long, 3 m in diameter, with an empty mass of 2,100 kg. It had the international designation 2008-010-B, and the USSTRATCOM (U.S. Strategic Command) catalogue number 32707.
Read more by clicking on the name of the source below.