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The sky is falling, but it doesn't seem to be satellite debris

When people in northern Texas saw debris burning up the sky yesterday, some quite understandably thought it might be shrapnel from last week's unfortunate game of chicken in space between U.S. and Russian satellites.

Fox News reported that flaming debris may have caused a grass fire in Penelope, Tex., about 60 miles south of Dallas. Several area residents had called 911 at 11 A.M. local time on February 15 thinking the boom they heard had come from a small plane crashing.

So was it the remains of the two satellites that collided over Siberia?

The U.S. Strategic Command Monday says no, reported News 8 Austin. And other experts seem to agree, pointing out that the objects seen in the sky were moving too fast and appeared too soon after the satellite collision to have been man-made.

"I've seen man-made debris reenter, and it's very different than natural meteors," wrote Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait in Discover Blogs after watching some of the videos. "The difference in speed is very obvious. Right there, that's enough to make me think this was a single natural object."

If that wasn't enough, the timing of the sightings is also suspicious: It would take months for us to be able to see debris from the crash because it will continue in orbit before (possibly) being grabbed by the Earth's atmosphere. "You'd have to have a pretty special set of circumstances to get any debris from the satellites to reenter our atmosphere so soon after the collision," wrote Plait, an astronomer and former public outreach director for the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) space observatory, concluding, "I am pretty sure what was seen was natural: a rock or a piece of metal from an asteroid."

Because there aren't clear lanes of traffic in space, nor do countries file flight plans to let the rest of the world know where their satellites are, the collision between the two spacecraft – despite being a first – didn't come as a complete surprise to the NASA Orbital Debris Program at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Although the debris from the this latest collision simply adds to the space litter already surrounding our planet, the European Union last year created a "code of conduct for outer space activities" (pdf) that lists taking "appropriate steps to minimise [sic] the risk of collision" as a responsibility of countries with space programs. "One of the responsibilities for nations who are able to do so is to give a heads up warning to owners of satellites that they are in jeopardy," says Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C., -based research organization focusing on international peace and security. "Debris mitigation procedures will be absolutely key in the future."

Travel at the ocean’s depths, it turns out, isn’t much different. Collisions between deep sea vessels is rare, but not unheard of. In fact, despite the vastness of the world's oceans, two nuclear-powered submarines—Britain's HMS Vanguard and France's Le Triomphant—earlier this month collided in the middle of the Atlantic, BBC News reported today. Unlike the U.S. and Russian satellites, the subs weren't destroyed, although the visibly dented and scraped HMS Vanguard had to be towed home, BBC reports.

Image ©iStockphoto.com/Andrey Volodin

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