Astronomers Say Cluster of Mysterious Lights in Maui Sky was an Old Rocket Booster

October 25, 2020, 12:19 AM HST · Updated October 25, 9:18 PM
Wendy Osher · 152 Comments
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    By Wendy Osher

    The mysterious lights in the night sky over Maui on Saturday still has many perplexed as to their origin, but astronomers say the believe the lights “in all likelihood” were associated with the reentry of a used up rocket booster from a launch in 2008.

    John O’Meara Chief Scientist, W.M. Keck Observatory says he believes the lights were from an old rocket booster that launched a Venezuelan communications satellite into space in China in 2008. Very few other locations would have had the vantage to see the event, making Hawaiʻi viewers and those on Maui in particular, very lucky to have caught the visual on Saturday night.

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    “That booster has been orbiting around the Earth, but its orbit has been decaying and eventually decayed enough to get slowed down by the atmosphere and reentered in over the Pacific.  So as it does, it falls into the atmosphere, it starts to break apart and heat up, and so it makes a nice twinkly light show as it falls apart.  It gets really hot and it disintegrates over the Ocean,” said O’Meara in a Zoom interview with Maui Now’s Wendy Osher on Sunday afternoon.

    “I think in this case, we just got lucky by where we are in the Pacific.  I think very few other people would probably have seen it based just off of where it was falling into the atmosphere.  Without many other folks around in the Pacific, we’re probably the only place on the planet that got to see it with our eyes,” said O’Meara.

    “Space junk falls into the atmosphere all of the time.  We’ve put a lot of stuff up there since the late 50s, but what is true is that most of the surface of the Earth is covered with oceans, so most of the time when it falls back into the atmosphere, we just don’t see it because we just don’t happen to be lucky enough to be in that right spot,” said O’Meara. “Space junk falls in all the time.  Usually it doesn’t make such a great light show, but in this case we were lucky.”

    According to O’Meara, there’s a number of agencies that track all of the objects in space, “In part because we want to keep astronauts safe, so we always want to know if there’s any debris out there anywhere near the International Space Station or any other folks that are up there in space,” said O’Meara, noting that most of the tracking right now is done by the US Military and other military organizations.

    O’Meara said the main thing that brought him to the conclusion that this was an old rocket booster was the prediction.  “They’ve been tracking the decaying orbit of this booster and they predicted that it was going to be coming into the atmosphere at roughly where it did at roughly the time that it did. So that’s the key piece of evidence,” he said,

    “The other reason why I’m pretty sure that it’s space junk is the way that it appears to fall in through the sky.  A comet is going to be sitting there and will rotate with the stars as the night goes on and it will be there for a much longer period of time in the sky.  The Starlink Satellites, it would be wrong time of night to be able to see Starlink that bright.  Normally you would see Starklink just after sunset or just before sunrise for it to be that bright.  And just the amount of time and the way that it was falling through the sky really has the hallmarks of a giant piece of debris coming in and burning up in our atmosphere,” said O’Meara.

    Maui Now received multiple reports of a cluster of mysterious lights seen from various parts of the island from Kahului in Central Maui to Pukalani, Olowalu and Nāpili on the West side just after 10 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 24. 2020.

    Video sent to us across our various media platforms showed a streak of 15-20 twinkling lights slowly passing overhead from the north, traveling southeast, and leaving a trail of smoke or debris behind.

    Many who witnessed the event tell Maui Now that the lights left a trail of smoke or heat that stretched across the sky.

    Complete interview here: https://www.facebook.com/mauinow/posts/10160387869389867

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    “It was the first Venezuelan satellite, but it died on March 20, 2020.  The Aerospace corp (see link below) predicts re-entry around Oct. 25 2020… flight path shows it going right over Hawaiʻi,” an astronomer told us in an email communication.

    Other Theories Suggest Military Training

    While scientists atop Maunakea tells us they believe the lights were from the Venesat-1 satellite rocket body, there’s still no consensus on what caused the mysterious lights in the night sky on Saturday.

    The Chief Flight Instructor at Maui Flight Academy tells Maui Now that the lights were most likely drones from a military technology exercise and not meteors.

    Laurence Balter said members of the academy were on their way to Hawaii Island from Maui when they captured an image aboard their moving map display aboard the academy’s Cirrus SR22 aircraft. (see image below)

    “The yellow X’s normally are electrostatic discharges from lightning to help pilots identify thunderstorms.  Normally they are isolated X’s or a very  tiny cluster.  Never have I seen a clump together like this.  I asked air traffic control about it and they said they did not have anything on radar,” said Balter.

    “All the local military bases are conducting exercises. In aviation terminology they are called “hot” when active and “cold” when not.  The cluster sits in the middle of the military warning area about 75-100 miles to the north of Maui and most of the islands. Clearly this is some sort of military technology exercise.  Most likely drones,” said Balter.

    Maui Now also reached out to military officials at the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, Kauaʻi for comment and are awaiting a response. We will continue to update as further information becomes available.

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    Maui Now received multiple reports of a cluster of mysterious lights seen from various parts of the island from Kahului in Central Maui to Pukalani, Olowalu and Nāpili on the West side just after 10 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 24. 2020.

    Video sent to us across our various media platforms showed a streak of 15-20 twinkling lights slowly passing overhead from the north, traveling southeast.

    An individual who sent a photo to us at around 10:02 p.m. from Mile 14 at Olowalu described the lights saying, “It looked like fireworks with a mixture of shooting stars.  It was amazing.”

    Another witness in Nāpili reported seeing “a huge plume of debris fall from the sky very slowly with a defined smoke trail behind it.”  They reported also observing the phenomenon at around 10 p.m.

    Go Fly Maui Helicopters captured the smoke trail and reported that those who saw it described it as “a meteor that broke into multiple pieces.”

    Others who were caught off guard by the lights said they did not hear anything but say the trail of lights slowly moved across the sky.

    We do not have an official description of the phenomenon or if it is associated with any other astronomical events occurring at this time.

    The Bishop Museum’s Jhamandas Watumull Planetarium reports that the Orionid Meteor shower is active between Sept. 23 to Nov. 27; though the peak, producing about 20–25 meteors an hour, was expected to occur on Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 20 and 21. “Like the Eta Aquarids in May, the Orionid Meteor Shower is caused by debris from Halley’s Comet,” the planetarium reports.

    Later this month on Halloween, Oct. 31, 2020, there will be a Blue Moon.  It’s the “second full moon of October, so it is called a Blue Moon. It is also a micro full moon because it occurs as the Moon is at its farthest point from Earth in its monthly orbit, called apogee,” according to the planetarium.

    Olowalu near Mile 14 at 10:02 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. PC: @FaThMah.

    Trail in sky after the lights had passed. PC: Go Fly Maui Helicopters

    Trail in sky after the lights had passed. PC: Go Fly Maui Helicopters

    Lights as seen from Pukalani after 10 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. PC: Tim Cleland.

    Lights as seen from Pukalani after 10 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. PC: Tim Cleland.

    Lights as seen from Pukalani after 10 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. PC: Tim Cleland.

    Wendy Osher
    Wendy Osher leads the Maui Now news team. She is also the news voice of parent company, Pacific Media Group, having served nearly 20 years as News Director for the company’s six Maui radio stations.

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