I saw an object last night (November 24, 2019) in the sky that was rather unusual and am curious about what it might have been. It had the luminosity and speed of movement across the sky (generally west to east) of the space station (which I often look for and see and so am quite familiar with its visual characteristics).

However it was a very reddish/orange color, and was flickering rapidly and significantly in its luminosity in a random fashion, but generally maintained a consistent brightness. As it got somewhat past my vertical heading towards the east it started to fade out, as the ISS would do as it goes behind the earth, and then after a few seconds it was no longer visible, though it was nowhere near the horizon yet, and there were no clouds or other obstructions in the sky, and the sky was clear (other stars were their typical colors so it wasn't anything in the atmosphere). The total duration of my sighting was probably ~60 seconds, and was not a fast streak like a meteorite would be. I believe it was in orbit rather than some aircraft, as there was no aircraft noise associated with it either.

My initial thought is that it could have been something burning up as it was de-orbiting. However, unlike many pictures that I've seen of spacecraft breakups as they burn up, this only appeared to be a single entity with nothing coming off of it. Also, if it were something coming back to earth from orbit (whether controlled or not), it would have been headed towards the NE USA or Canada area, which seems very unlikely if it were a controlled situation. Finally, if it was something burning up, it likely wouldn't have faded out gradually in an identical fashion to what I see from the Space Station.

A second thought could have been a rocket doing an engine burn, but I am dubious that an engine burn would have been so flickering or redish-orange in color, with luminosity as viewed on earth that's similar to what the Sun's reflection off the ISS would be. Also, it would seem that an engine burn would only really be visible once the engine passed my location and I would have a line-of-sight to the exhaust.

In looking at historical Space Station locations from last night, the Space Station was not overhead at the time.

My location was the Cedar Rapids, Iowa area, and the local time was just a few minutes before 8pm local time (CST) on November 24. It was close to overhead (probably NLT 75 degrees elevation). I first looked up and saw it when it was probably 30 degrees generally west of vertical, and it faded out when it was about 50 degrees west of vertical.

Shortly afterwards I tried to use a satellite spotting program on my phone, but was unable to go back in time a few minutes to see what was visible previous to the current time. So, does anyone have thoughts on what I might have seen, or how I could try and do more investigation on my own?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Here's heavens above's list of everything that went overhead last night. I'm not seeing anything that directly matches what you have in terms of brightness, though there may have been some flaring. heavens-above.com/… $\endgroup$ – Tristan Nov 25 '19 at 18:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ astronomy.stackexchange.com/questions/13488 may or may not help $\endgroup$ – user7073 Nov 26 '19 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ The night sky can be clear, without having good visibility. If there is a lot of atmospheric disturbances or rapidly changing temperatures the churn of the atmosphere can make stars "flicker". $\endgroup$ – Magic Octopus Urn Nov 26 '19 at 15:56

There are sites that will list bright satellites visible at particular locations and times; they're useful both for planning observations and to retroactively determine what you might have observed.

Neither Heavens Above nor In-The-Sky.org show any bright satellite passes visible from Cedar Rapids around 8pm on November 24th 2019, and the flickering reddish-orange is not typical of satellite sightings.

I think an aircraft at high altitude is the most likely explanation.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.