UFO over Arabia? It's just the flash from Chinese space junk

Image: UFO sighting
Al Sada via YouTube

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By Alan Boyle, Science Editor

Bright lights in the night sky sparked UFO alerts in Saudi Arabia, but the display turned out to be a well-known space phenomenon: the fiery re-entry of some Chinese space junk.

Multiple videos of Thursday night's lights were posted on YouTube. One sighting was reported by a witness who was near the Prophet's Mosque in the western Saudi city of Medina, according to reports from the Saudi newspaper Al Sada and the Emirates24/7 website.

"I was passing just near the mosque when I saw the object ... I captured a film of it, but I could not trace it as it split into two or three parts," Al Sada quoted Fahd Al Harbi as saying.

"This was a satellite re-entry that was predicted," NBC News space analyst James Oberg said in an email. "The object was a rocket body from the Chinese communications satellite Chinasat 9, launched in 2008. It is amazing how bright the fragments can be, and when they fly horizontally and 'in formation,' they often fool people — especially pilots — into imagining they are lighted windows in aircraft, spacecraft, or even UFOs."

We've seen lots of similar reports relating to space junk — including a SpaceX rocket flaming out over the Indian Ocean last September as well as rocket re-entries observed over China and the Middle East in 2012. The best-known incident was the "space spiral" spotted over Norway in 2009. This posting on the SeeSat-L discussion forum provides some great historical perspective.

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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.