Seen from Malaga. / josé luis escudero

What were those strange lights seen in the sky near the Costa del Sol early on Monday morning?

Astrophysicists have explained it was part of Elon Musk’s Space X Falcon 9 rocket coming back to Earth after launching satellites into orbit

IGNACIO LILLO Malaga

Anyone checking out the weather around 6.05am this Monday morning may have noticed some strange-looking lights moving across the dark sky, very close to Malaga. Some who saw them took to social media, wondering if they were from a large drone or maybe a satellite. Luckily, experts were on hand to set their minds at rest: it was the second part of Elon Musk’s Space X Falcon 9 space rocket, coming back to Earth.

Astrophysicist José María Madiedo, of the Andalusian Astrophysics Institute, explained that the Falcon 9 had been launched from Cape Canaveral (USA) at 02.32 hours (CET), to put 51 Starlink satellites into orbit. These provide high-speed Internet for advanced telecommunications.

“As the rocket ascends, it sheds parts,” he said. The first part contains the fuel; it runs out of fuel and falls off, and is recoverable. The second part carries the 51 satellites.

This second part is the one that reaches space and places the satellites in orbit. Once it has done so, the structure is of no more use so what Space X has done is propel it back to Earth, so it doesn’t become part of the debris in space.

“It is forced to fall back to Earth and that is what people saw, the second part re-entering the atmosphere,” Madiedo explained.

The haze which witnesses have described, and which was perfectly visible from many places in Malaga province, was the cloud of gases from the rocket’s propellers, which slowed its descent until it disintegrated through friction with the Earth’s atmosphere.

The point where this part of the rocket fell has not yet been determined, but Madiedo said it was probably somewhere in the Mediterranean because it did not fly over Malaga.

Materials such as these are not reused, because they are destroyed upon re-entry, although it is possible that some small fragments may have fallen.