A big piece of Chinese space junk crashed to Earth over Southern California early Tuesday morning (April 2), putting on quite a show for observers in the Golden State.

The fall created a blazing fireball witnessed by people from the Sacramento area all the way down to San Diego, according to the American Meteor Society (AMS). As of Tuesday afternoon, 81 people had reported sightings of the event to the AMS. 

The hunk of space debris was the orbital module of China’s Shenzhou 15 spacecraft, according to astrophysicist and satellite tracker Jonathan McDowell. It had been up there for a while; Shenzhou 15 launched three astronauts to the nation’s Tiangong space station in November 2022.

The Shenzhou orbital module, which weighs about 3,300 pounds (1,500 kilograms), provides extra room for astronauts and science experiments in space. It’s not designed to come back to Earth safely at the end of its mission; the Shenzhou reentry module is built to do that, with astronauts on board.

Related: 6 types of objects that could cause a space debris apocalypse

a yellow-orange fireball is seen in a dark night sky

Jennifer M. captured this photo of a fireball in Earth’s skies from Phelan, California on April 2, 2024 and forwarded it to the American Meteor Society. The fireball was caused by the reentry of China’s Shenzhou 15 orbital module, experts say. (Image credit: Jennifer M./American Meteor Society)

Of course, most folks who saw the fireball streak across the sky around 1:40 a.m. local California time (4:40 a.m. EDT; 0840 GMT) didn’t know what it was. 

Some thought it may have been a piece of SpaceX hardware, which was a reasonable guess: A Falcon 9 rocket had launched 22 of the company’s Starlink internet satellites from Vandenberg Space Force Base on California’s central coast about six hours earlier.

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The burning debris couldn’t have been the Falcon 9’s first stage; that piece of hardware lands safely after launch and is reused. But the workhorse rocket’s upper stage is disposable.

A view of a comet-like streak of light in the sky above water reflecting city lights. The image is tilted such that the horizon is almost vertical on the page, but not quite.

Casey B. captured this photo of a fireball from San Diego on April 2, 2024 and forwarded it to the American Meteor Society. (Image credit: Casey B./American Meteor Society)

The Shenzhou 15 orbital module was hardly the first big piece of Chinese space junk to crash back to Earth in dramatic fashion, nor was it the biggest.

The 23-ton (21-metric-ton) core stage of the nation’s powerful Long March 5B rocket, whose launches helped build Tiangong, routinely fall to Earth in an uncontrolled fashion.

These debris crashes have drawn criticism from a variety of people in the space community, including the heads of NASA and the European Space Agency, who have decried them as irresponsible and potentially dangerous.

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Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, “Out There,” was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.

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