The Sky Isn't Falling in Texas — Yet

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If anyone has a reason to be skittish about space debris, it's the people of Texas. It's in Houston, after all, that much of what we launch into orbit is monitored. And it's in rural Texas that much of the flaming wreckage of the shuttle Columbia landed in 2003. Sunday morning, it looked like Texas was in the path of danger again, when police received numerous reports of a sonic boom, a visible fireball and debris descending in various spots around the state. That debris, people figured, had to be space junk reentering from Tuesday's collision between an American communications satellite and a spent Russian satellite.

FAA spokesman Roland Herwig confirms that the calls did come in and confirms that a warning did go out to pilots yesterday to be alert to the possibility of satellite wreckage. But the critical bits of evidence — actual debris recovered on the ground — has not turned up. "We have not seen any indication of anything being found," Herwig told TIME on Sunday evening. "Our source for this would be local law enforcement." (See pictures of animals in space.)

For now, there's little reason to worry. NASA told TIME on Sunday that the events seen and heard earlier in the day bore the hallmarks of a natural incident; debris from a satellite collision is generally too small to be seen. The satellites involved in last week's cosmic crack-up were relatively small machines. The Russian ship weighed 1,235 lbs.; the American ship was about a ton. Once that mass is broken up into smaller pieces, the atmosphere ought to do a pretty good job of incinerating it. Skylab did shower the Australian outback with wreckage during its reentry in the summer of 1979, but it weighed a whale-like 91 metric tons; Columbia weighed 47.

This isn't to say that Sunday's reports weren't accurate, but with a lot more naturally occurring flotsam whizzing around space than the man-made kind, Earth is always in the path of something or other. A sonic boom is perfectly consistent with anything entering our atmosphere, as is a visible fireball — hence the phenomenon of the shooting star. On any other day, the Texas sightings would be dismissed as nothing more than that. Those rocks don't reach the ground because the atmosphere dispatches them neatly, and it should have no trouble digesting the satellite junk too. One way or the other, Texans — and anyone else on the ground — are probably safe. (See NASA's renderings of space.)

Still, Herwig concedes the FAA is not ruling anything in or out. "The first thing in my job description is not to speculate," he says. That said, he doesn't sound worried either.

See pictures of Earth from space.

See the top 50 space moments since Sputnik.