White lights, sometimes in a row, sometimes sporadic. That is how people in Andalucía who were startled by the phenomenon in the early hours of tTuesday morning, 21 June, described what they had seen, but they need not have worried: there was a simple explanation.
Many posted about the sighting on social media and wondered if it was a meteor shower, but the Twitter account @Asismet_IF, which specialises in astronomical, geoscientific and related events, said the lights were probably space debris, possibly from the upper stage of the Chinese CZ-2F rocket.
That turned out to be correct. José María Madiedo, of the Andalusian Institute of Astrophysics, has now said the phenomenon occurred as a result of one of the phases of the Chang Zheng 2F rocket re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. The CZ-2F was launched by the Chinese Space Agency (CNSA) on 5 June as part of the Shenzhou 14 mission.
The mission was to take three astronauts to the Tianhe module, the first – and for the moment – only module of the Chinese Tiangong space station. The CZ-2F rocket was used to launch the Shenzou 14 craft which was transporting the astronauts into orbit.
Madiedo explained that the white lights were a row of fireballs which were visible when the upper part of the rocket re-entered the atmosphere, breaking into multiple fragments which became incandescent as a result of the friction as they did so. Every one of those fragments created a fireball.
Thanks to recordings by detectors of the SMART project, it could be seen that the re-entry occurred over the Atlantic, off the coast of Morocco. José Marís Madiedo said that the debris from the rocket then moved north-east, flying over Tetuán (northern Morocco), and continued over the Mediterranean, passing just ten kilometres from the coast at Almeria. Finally, the row of fireballs was extinguished over the Mediterranean about 100 kms off the coast of Algeria and 100 kms off Murcia.
Most messages on social media were posted by people who had seen these lights in Malaga, Seville, Huelva and Granada provinces, although Madiedo said they were also visible much further north, including Toledo, Madrid and even Valladolid.