Residents living near a jade mine in Myanmar were shocked by an explosion on Thursday, as a massive piece of metal crashed out of the sky.
Authorities now think that the piece of metal likely came from a Chinese satellite that was launched this week, but at first, locals were confused and frightened by the event.
"We were all afraid of that explosion," local resident Ko Maung Myo told the Myanmar Times. "Initially, we thought it was a battle. The explosion made our houses shake. We saw the smoke from our village."
“Every local thought it was the explosion of heavy artillery,” said Ko Maung Myo.
The massive hunk of space junk is a cylinder about fifteen feet long, and is currently resting in the mud in the Kachin province jade mine. Another piece of junk, a smaller piece of debris with Chinese writing on it, fell through the roof of a local house. Neither piece of falling junk harmed anybody on the ground.
“I think it was an engine because I found a diode and many copper wires at the tail of the body,” Myo told the Myanmar Times.
“Myanmar is directly to the south of the launch site and this would put the country directly under the launch trajectory for that rocket,” said Southampton University space debris researcher Clemens Rumpf, according to the Guardian. “It is entirely plausible that the first or second stage of the rocket could have come down there.”
“In general, the first stage of any rocket does not make it to orbit and thus falls down somewhere downrange from the launch site,” he added.
While rocket stages commonly fall away before rockets make it to orbit, it is rare but not unheard of for space junk to make a crash landing in human inhabited areas.
In January, The Christian Science Monitor’s Lucy Schouten reported that mysterious metal space balls that landed in Vietnam were likely cosmic in origin. She wrote:
The Ministry of Defense has the objects in custody and promised to release details about their origin. The only report so far is that they are not explosive or – now that they've stopped falling – dangerous. They are probably Russian-made and could originate from a failed satellite launch in another country, CBC News reported.
Bits of space junk fall from the sky intermittently as an estimated 500,000 pieces of debris continues to clutter the area of "near space" around the Earth. Although space is vast and mostly empty, the "near space" immediately surrounding Earth is increasingly crowded. NASA tracks roughly 20,000 pieces of old or broken debris larger than a softball from satellites and missions past.
And about one year ago this month, scientists watched as strange multi-colored space debris crashed to Earth off the coast of Sri Lanka.
Scientists eventually concluded that the debris belonged to part of an old lunar mission, based on its pre-crash orbit and the distance it traveled to come back to Earth.