What Does a Reentry Look Like?

What Does a Reentry Look Like?

Witnessing the reentry of a man-made space object is a breathtaking experience that only a privileged few have seen. These reentries tend to look like shooting stars (meteors) with a bright central body followed by a long, dazzling tail and often break into numerous fragments. The similarities between meteors and man-made reentries can be significant and often lead to confusion. Many CORDS experts have been asked how one might distinguish natural meteors from man-made reentries. The general rule-of-thumb is that natural meteor reentries happen quickly and typically last less than five to ten seconds while man-made reentries happen slowly and typically last 20 – 90 seconds or more.


Space Object Reentry Examples


This video taken by ESA from an observation aircraft shows a close up view of the ATV-1 spacecraft reentering over the Pacific Ocean after completing its ISS resupply mission.

Credit – ESA/NASA


This NASA video, also from an observation aircraft, shows another example of a space object (JAXA’s Hayabusa spacecraft) reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Credit – NASA


More space object reentry videos, as seen from the ground:

CZ-3B Rocket Body Reentry
GOCE Satellite Reentry
SL-4 Rocket Body Reentry


Meteor Atmosphere Entry Examples


Meteors entries typically do not last as long as man-made object reentries, as seen in the short video below of a Draconid meteor entering the atmosphere.

Credit – ESA


More meteor entry videos, as seen from the ground:

Meteor Entry over Florida
Meteor Entry over Thailand


Atypical Examples


On very, very rare occasions the meteor vs. man-made object rule-of-thumb discriminator becomes invalid. This occurs when the speed or flight-path angle of the object in question mimics values that are more typical for objects in the opposite category. Some examples are shown below.

Occasionally a man-made space object will reenter the atmosphere at a steep enough angle causing its reentry to last a much shorter duration than most reentries. An example of this was seen during the reentry of the WT1190F spacecraft on 13 November 2015.

Video 1
Video 2 (video is in slow motion)


There are also examples of meteors lasting tens of seconds in duration. For example, the Peekskill meteorite, which reentered over the Eastern U.S. on 9 October 1992, had a very shallow flight-path angle that closely mimicked that of a man-made object.

Video 1
Video 2


If you believe you may have seen a space object reentry, please fill out our Report Reentry Sighting form.




Approved for public release. OTR 2017-00313