Thousands of people across the UK were treated to a spectacular light show in the night sky on Friday, prompting scores of calls to police from witnesses who feared they were watching a plane crash or a distress flare. The display, initially believed to be a meteor shower, is thought to have been caused by space junk – debris from spacecraft or satellites – burning up on entry to the atmosphere, experts said yesterday.
Police and coastguards were inundated with calls from shortly before 11pm, some callers worried that an aeroplane had come down.
Reports of the meteor came from as far north as the Shetland Islands, as well as Wales and Norfolk in East Anglia. The objects were also visible in the skies over Northern Ireland.
Craig Usher, 23, a civil engineering student, was taking photos of the North Star at Loch Thom in Scotland when he saw the lights. "I suddenly saw this flash out of the side of my eye and saw a meteor breaking into about 20 pieces," he said.
Tom Heaton, 28, was star gazing with his girlfriend when they saw the display in Galloway Forest Park in Scotland. "It was a one in a million chance we were in just the right place at the right time," he said. "At first I thought a plane had crashed, but then I realised it was a meteor."
The 45-second display caught astronomers by surprise, leaving a question mark over exactly what had caused it. There are hundreds of thousands of fragments from satellites and space rockets orbiting the Earth. Dr Tim O'Brien, associate director of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, estimated the object was 80 miles up, moving at around 18,000 miles an hour.