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Lights in sky were likely from rocket body returning to Earth

This image of an object that caught the eye of Mauians on Saturday night was taken by the ATLAS all-sky monitor at 10:01 p.m. Astronomers at the University of Hawaii Institute of Astronomy believe the object to be space junk falling to Earth and disintegrating in the atmosphere. ATLAS/ LARRY DENNEAU photo

The lights in the sky over Maui at about 10 p.m. Saturday were most likely a rocket body from a launch two years ago — and not a UFO — burning up in the atmosphere, according to an official with the University of Hawaii Institute of Astronomy on Maui.

“I heard about the lights from someone who had seen them. When they were described to me the first thing that I thought was that it might be a bolide — a meteor that explodes in the atmosphere or possibly a satellite coming down. I think that there was a pilot that suggested that it was a drone test,” said J.D. Armstrong, UH astronomer and project scientist with the Faulkes Telescope North atop Haleakala.

“There has been some discussion about this at the IfA, and I think that the explanation that everyone is agreeing is most likely is that it is a rocket body,” he said.

The rocket body was from a launch of the Venezuelan communications satellite VeneSat-1, which blasted off Oct. 29, 2008, from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China, according to the Aerospace website.

The rocket body was on a path over Hawaii and was predicted to reenter the atmosphere at about 7:30 p.m. Saturday, the website said.

Because the event was captured by Haleakala telescope ATLAS-1, it would rule out drones, said Armstrong. The images would have come from an object too high for a drone. The photo, taken at 10:01 p.m. Saturday, shows a streak across the sky. (ATLAS is an asteroid impact early warning system being developed by the University of Hawaii and funded by NASA and consists of telescopes on Haleakala and Mauna Loa.)

Armstrong said the video he saw on Maui Now “was fairly consistent with the video I have seen of the OGO-1 satellite breaking up on reentry.” He did note that the OGO-1 satellite, launched in 1964, made its reentry in the daytime in the South Pacific on Aug. 29.

Holden Suzuki and Wilson Chau, both 8th-graders at Maui Waena Intermediate School, spotted the 1,070-pound space satellite in early August and helped determine that the 50-year-old abandoned satellite was projected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere Aug. 29 away from inhabited areas.

Jokingly asked if the lights in the sky could be aliens bringing a cure for COVID-19, Armstrong said that he wished “it were aliens coming to bring COVID relief, but yeah, as Carl Sagan put it, ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’ “

“The observations fit too well with the rocket body for us to call this extraordinary evidence in favor of aliens. So, no aliens,” he said.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.

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