On Tuesday evening, a fireball streaked across the night sky and was visible from California to Arizona and northwards to Southern Utah. But it was not Santa's sleigh doing a pre-Christmas test flight, nor was it an asteroid or a comet as some who posted photos of the object on social media speculated.
In fact, the mysterious object has been positively confirmed as debris from a Russian rocket which was reentering the atmosphere. It was the SL-4 rocket body booster to be precise that was burning up upon reentry.
According to a statement released by U.S. Strategic Command, the rocket body part was removed from the U.S. satellite catalogue and was classified as a decayed object when it was confirmed as having reentered the atmosphere at 7:08 p.m MST on Dec. 22.
The Joint Functional Component Command for Space Center (JFCC) also confirmed the reentry of the Russian rocket part into the atmosphere and advised anyone seeking more clarification or information on the rocket to address their questions to the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos.
"I can tell you that when rockets are released into space that the upper-stage body that is attached to the rocket becomes debris," said Capt. Nick Mercurio, director of public affairs at JFCC. "Every day we track over 23,000 man-made objects floating through space and we can confirm this particular object was removed from our catalog."
JFCC, along with Joint Space Operations Center (JspOC), tracks up to 16,000 other objects on-orbit and the entire tracking list may be viewed at USSTRATCOM's Satellite Catalog and on the website www.Space-Track.org.
The service of these agencies in carefully tracking and documenting these satellites is reportedly in part to provide situational awareness for flight safety and environmental protection in space.
Although several concerned citizens who witnessed the rocket debris streak across the sky in a fiery fireball called emergency services for fear it might be anything from a meteor to an airplane coming apart mid-flight, no one was dispatched to respond to any critical emergencies in relation to the sightings.