A mysterious object spotted in the sky over the southwestern United States that many initially believed to be a meteor has been confirmed to be the body of a Russian space rocket re-entering the atmosphere.
The bright, cometlike object was seen by dozens of residents from Las Vegas, Nevada to Ventura, California, shortly after 6 p.m. on Dec. 22, KTLA reported.
The object, which was seen for about 10 minutes, resembled a flash of light streaking across the sky with debris falling from it, according to KCAL-TV.
The phenomenon was witnessed by people in Las Vegas as well as various regions in California including Death Valley, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Corona and Irvine.
Shortly after the object was spotted, many people took to social media to post videos and theories of what it could be.
Online commenters have speculated the object to be a "flaming streak," a UFO, and a meteor. Some joked that it was "Santa Claus doing a test run."
Ed Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, said the object was a bright meteor.
“The most likely thing people saw was the super-heated column of air produced by a very small piece of interplanetary debris, something the size of a small pebble," he told KTLA.
Others in the scientific community echoed Krupp's speculations.
Bob Pippin, the director of the planetarium at the College of Southern Nevada, told KVVU-TV he believed that the object was either a meteor that broke apart as it entered the atmosphere, or "space junk," the term used to describe defunct satellites and other manmade objects that orbit the Earth.
Tammy Smecker-Hane, an astronomy professor at the University of California-Irvine, said she believed the object to be part of the Ursid meteor shower, which was forecast to peak on Dec. 22, according to KCAL-TV.
Around 9:30 p.m. on the same day the object was first spotted, the U.S. Strategic Command dispelled the rumors when it confirmed that the object was the body of a Russian space rocket disintegrating upon re-entry into the atmosphere.
Julie Ziegenhorn, a deputy public affairs officer for the agency, released this statement about the sighting, according to KTLA:
"U.S. Strategic Command's Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC Space), through the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), removed a Russian SL-4 rocket body from the U.S. satellite catalog as a decayed object after it re-entered the atmosphere today over North America (vicinity Arizona)."
Ziegenhorn added that officials were not able to track the object after it first made contact with the atmosphere because of the potentially damaging effects.
This is not the first time a mysterious bright object was spotted in the sky over southern California.
On Nov. 7, a similar object seen in the same area caused much public speculation until it was eventually revealed to be a missile fired as part of a test conducted by the U.S. Navy, according to KTLA.