Carolina to New York a stunning fiery show as it broke into pieces and burned up on re-entry, the U.S. Space Command said.
"We believe it was a Russian SL3 rocket booster that re-entered the Earth's atmosphere at 6 a.m.," said Navy Commander Rod Gibbons of the U.S. Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
"The object was not designed to survive re-entry" and likely burned up before any pieces could reach the ground, Gibbons said.
Thousands of people jammed telephone lines to local radio and television stations and emergency hotlines to report the sighting of what they believed was a meteor streaking across the sky.
The calculations that determined the object was a rocket booster were made by the U.S. Space Command's Space Central Center, Gibbons said.
The rocket booster that was attached to a rocket launched in 1975 re-entered the Earth's atmosphere about 100 miles off the coast of Delaware, Gibbons said. He said there was no information available about the rocket the booster would have been attached to or even if the rocket itself was still in orbit.
There are about 8,300 objects orbiting the Earth and some 17,000 objects have been put into space since the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik I on Oct. 4, 1957.
The objects routinely fall back to Earth after years of being in orbit and most of the time go unnoticed.
The center began stepping up its surveillance of the rocket seven days ago, Gibbons said, adding that the Space Command generally can't predict the exact time and location that an object will re-enter the atmosphere.
But with clear blue skies on the East Coast, the object was easily sighted. Also, at that hour many people were leaving for work, Gibbons said.
Charles Tekula, 49, a commercial fisherman in Long Island, was with his son at about 5:30 a.m. when he saw the sky light up.
"At first thought it was a jetliner coming toward us, but then I saw a smoke trail," he said.
"My son said it looked like a big, slow-moving firework across the sky." Tekula said. We were speechless, it was the most fantastic thing I'd ever seen."
Officials at the National Weather Service and the Naval Observatory had earlier speculated that the object was a meteor.
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