Perfectly Timed Photos Capture ‘Orbital Fireworks’ Over Hawaii

HONOLULU — Sometimes, photography is all about being in the right place at the right time.

And on Saturday morning, astrophotographer Steve Cullen managed to do just that.

Around 2 a.m, Cullen was on his way down from a nearly five-hour photo session at the 13,796-foot summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island. The owner of Hawaii’s Starscape Gallery stopped about 11,000 feet to shoot one final night-time panorama of nearby Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano on Earth.

“I was looking west to take the final frame of my panorama when I saw an orange light coming towards me,” he told The Huffington Post in an email.

As a photographer who has spent his life watching airplanes, satellites and meteors in the night sky, Cullen quickly realized the “orbital fireworks” were from something man-made re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

Cullen said the rare experience, which lasted all of about two minutes, was nothing short of “surreal.”

“I have never seen a re-entry like this,” he said. “I was so excited by what I was witnessing that I fell over the berm of lava rocks and nearly tumbled down the mountain as I went to reposition the camera for the eastward view. I think I was actually lying on the ground (with a freshly scuffed up knee) when I snapped the shutter for the first east-facing shot!”

It is believed that the space junk that broke up over Hawaii’s sky was a Long March rocket re-entering after being launched from China’s Xichang Space Center last September. That month, Hawaii was treated to a similar sky show when a decades-old Russian satellite re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.

According to NASA, there are more than 20,000 pieces of orbital debris — man-made objects in orbit —> Read More