People in California, Nevada, and Utah saw a huge meteor-like, disintegrating object in the sky on July 27, 2016. Ian Norman and his friends, who captured the video above (warning: profanity) from California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range recognized it as a satellite reentry. Experts from Aerospace.org say it was the reentry of a Chinese CZ-7 rocket body. The rocket had been launched from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, China on June 25, 2016 on a technology demonstration mission.
The amazing reentry was seen near 9:38 pm PST and, because it was slowly crossing the skies, the event was recorded in video by several witnesses. You can see more videos by going to YouTube and using the search term July 27, 2016 fireball.
The Chinese rocket body designated as CZ-7 (41628) successfully carried to space the Tiange and Aoxiang small satellites, as well, as other small experimental modules.
When you see a disintegrating meteor-like object like this one, how can you tell whether it’s a human-made object or a natural space rock?
A disintegrating spacecraft will look like a spectacular meteor, but will look considerably slower upon reentry than natural meteors. The reentry might appear slow enough to allow you to announce it to people standing next to you, and even take video or pictures. This is something very difficult with much faster natural (space rocks or comet fragments) meteors.
Also, reentering spacecraft have shown significant fragmentation. Go back to the video at the top of this page, and notice the fragmentation around 1:05.
Bottom line: Observers in the U.S. West saw a huge fireball on July 27, 2016. It was the reentry of a Chinese rocket body.
Eddie Irizarry of the Sociedad de Astronomía del Caribe (Astronomical Society of the Caribbean) has been a NASA Solar System Ambassador since 2004. He loves public outreach and has published multiple astronomy articles for EarthSky, as well as for newspapers in Puerto Rico. He has also offered dozens of conferences related to asteroids and comets at the Arecibo Observatory.