by Andrew Arnett
On November 14, 1997, thousands of people witnessed a formation of orange orbs fly over Washington State. News stations and emergency services were flooded with calls from eyewitnesses. Reports came in from as far north as British Columbia and as far south as Sacramento, California. By 11:00 p.m., all three network affiliates in Seattle – KIRO, KOMO and KING – were featuring the story in their lead.
Some witnesses were worried, telling KOMO News they thought the lights were missiles launched by Saddam Hussein. The concern was justified. One night before, on November 13, an international crisis did erupt when Iraq expelled American members of the U.N. weapons inspection team, there to verify Iraq had destroyed its nuclear, biological and ballistic weapons. Saddam did a lot of heinous things in his time but, he was not responsible for this light show.
Others thought they were watching a meteor shower. Janessa Frazee, 18, of Centralia, WA, told the Associated Press, “It looked like a falling star. It was fire-colored, orange-reddish with a head that was white. It was cool.”
Callers told KXRO radio in Aberdeen they had witnessed one intense streak of light, while others reported seeing anywhere from six to thirty lights in the sky.
“It looked like a huge bottle rocket moving slowly across the sky,” June Akiyama of Gig Harbor told The News Tribune of Tacoma.
The next morning, CNN showed a video clip of several large glowing objects with long trails of fiery debris streaking over Seattle.
Initial claims by some media outlets did in fact report that the lights were caused by a dramatic, and expected, meteor shower. Al George, director of the Pettinger-Guiley Observatory near Puyallup, told The News Tribune, “This was a precursor to the Nov. 17 Leonids meteor show. It can be rather spectacular. Some say it can even look like a jetliner burning as it crashes to Earth.”
George added that, “The chance of getting hit by a meteorite is about one fifty-thousandth the chance of being hit by lighting, so go out and watch it and enjoy. You won’t need a meteorite umbrella.”
The Leonid meteor stream is associated with the comet Tempel-Tuttle, comprised of solid matter ejected from the comet as its frozen gases evaporate when passing close to the Sun.
On average, the meteor shower can dump as much as 13 tons of material across the planet. However, every 33 years, the normal shower can become an intense storm sending hundreds of meteors through our atmosphere every second, which is what happened in 1997.
The interesting thing is that the peak density of Leonid meteor activity happens on or around November 17 annually, confirming that there was in fact meteoric activity occuring in the skies during the 11/14/97 sightings.
The Leonid meteor shower of 1997 is unique for being the first time a meteor event was filmed from space. On April 24, 1996, the Midcourse Space Experiment satellite (MSX) was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA. In November of 1997, the MSX deployed its battery of optical sensors to observe and capture images of the Leonid shower from 908 km above the earth.
Within hours of the sightings, however, the meteor shower explanation was tossed out, as the U.S. Air Force offered a second opinion on the cause for the atmospheric lights. This time it would be “space junk.”
During the 11:00 p.m. news broadcast, KING 5 television aired a telephone interview with Maj. Wes Davis from the Pentagon, who said that a section from a Russian rocket had reentered the Earth’s atmosphere Friday night, off the western Washington coast.
On November 15, 1997, the Associated Press reported that state and federal officials said the light show was caused by “space junk” from “the body of an old Russian rocket burning up as it reentered the atmosphere.”
AP quoted Milt Maas at the National Weather Service saying whatever was left of the rocket debris “fell safely in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Washington.”
On November 16, 1997, the Seattle Times reported that NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) said the “lights” were debris from a Russian SL-12 booster rocket “burning up as it reentered the atmosphere.” The debris was identified as NORAD object 25047.
This numeric designation allows us today, 20 years after the event, to track the debris and to confirm its existance. Using the Celestrak Satellite Catalogue (SATCAT) we discovered the following information:
Object 25047, a booster rocket designated SL-12 R/B(1), was launched from Tyuratam Missile and Space Center, Kazakhstan (aka Baikonur Cosmodrome) on November 12, 1997. Its current status was “decayed” and its date of decay was November 15, 1997. This correlates with the timing of the sightings, most of which occured after 9:00 p.m., which puts the date at November 15 UT.
The official statements put forth by NORAD and the Pentagon effectively put an end to any further inquiries by the mainstream media. As far as they were concerned, the case was closed. But many people, especially those who saw the lights with their own eyes, were not completely satisfied with those answers.