The speed and dull glow of the mysterious flaming object hurtling over the UAE skies on Monday night were clear signs that it was debris from a Russian space rocket and not a meteor shower, according to the founder of Dubai Astronomy Group.
“When I analysed the video it was clear this was falling space debris disintegrating in the atmosphere,” said Hasan Al Hariri.
The group reported that the object was falling space debris from a Progress rocket used to supply the International Space Station.
“Such modules are guided in such a way that it burns in the air and does not fall into a populated area. This was of the Progress module that supplies the International Space Station with water, food and equipment. It is an unmanned vehicle that is totally autonomous, it docks at the station, the equipment is removed and it’s sent back where it burns in the atmosphere.”
Earlier the group issued a statement saying that: "The view was spectacular and last for almost 80 seconds. The space craft disintegrated in the upper atmosphere and broke up into smaller chunks and burned like fireworks."
It added: "The trajectory of the debris was over Arabian Peninsula crossing UAE and Oman to finally over Indian Ocean."
Dubai Media office initially tweeted a report from the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre that "a meteor has passed through the skies of Dubai."
Describing the difference between a meteor shower and falling space debris, Mr Al Hariri said the main contrast was speed.
“The clear evidence of a man-made object and event from a natural occurrence of a meteor fall is that meteor fire balls rush in at very high speed and burn in the atmosphere or explode in the sky leaving a trace of gas behind,” he said.
“A meteor glow would have been much bigger than what people saw last night.”
He gave the example of the meteor explosion in February 2013 that blew up over Russia’s Ural Mountains and in which the sonic blast shattered windows and injured more than 1,000 people.
“This was a unique event because even astronomers were shocked to see the explosion. That glowed three-to-four times brighter than the sun and was dangerous because of the sonic boom that shattered glass and injured people,” Mr Al Hariri said.
Satellite tracking services also reported that the Progress module had made its final pass before reentry on a track across Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, breaking up at around 7.28pm UAE time, exactly the moment as a mysterious object was seen over the UAE.
Sightings were reported in Dubai and Abu Dhabi as well as other Arabian Gulf states in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Bright streaks of orange were seen moving approximately north to south from Khalifa City and moving at the speed of an aircraft.
There appeared to be multiple points of orange light moving together, and in a straight line. At the centre of the cluster one point appeared to be glowing red. The lights were visible for only a few seconds before moving behind a nearby house, and seemingly descending. There was no sound.
Initial speculation ranged from a large meteor shower to the break-up of the 8.5-ton Tiangong-1, or Heavenly Palace, a Chinese space laboratory, which is expected in the next few months.
The Progress spacecraft was launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan and has a payload of nearly 2,500 kilos of cargo.
Modules are not reused and crash back to Earth in a decaying orbit after they are detached from the ISS, often carrying rubbish from the station.
Progress MS-06 was launched in July, while Progress MS-07 arrived at the ISS on October 16. It is not yet clear if the space ship launched in July has now been undocked and could be the burning object seen over the UAE.
Two more similar sightings are expected to occur on Wednesday and Thursday but will not be visible from the UAE, said Mr Hariri who has witnessed falling space debris in past years.
Debris from a Japanese amateur micro-radio satellite will fall over Australia on Wednesday but will dissipate into ashes in the atmosphere, he said while describing its size as equivalent to a 1.5 litre water bottle.
The next chunk of space debris is a protective sheet from the International Space Station that was dislodged during a maintenance spacewalk. This would burn up on Thursday, he said.
“Sightings like the one on Monday night are good because people will have more awareness of how to distinguish natural and man-made objects.”
Space treaties now govern the disposal of satellites so both the launch and re-entry are controlled and can be tracked on websites.
“When satellites or equipment are sent into space, the return is also immediately planned. It is governed by treaties so the re-entry and disposal are controlled properly and systematically,” Mr Al Hariri said.