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Calgary photographer captures fireball streaking through sky

CALGARY – A Calgary photographer taking pictures of the northern lights got more than he bargained for on Monday, capturing what appeared to be a brilliant fireball as it streaked across the sky.

“Out of the corner of my eye, I caught something in the sky moving,” explains Neil Zeller. “Initially, I thought it might be an airplane… but it didn’t seem to be falling, it just kept crossing the sky.”

Zeller was photographing the opposite direction when he happened to spot the fireball, but says he was able to spin his camera around just in time to capture four long-exposure shots.

“You don’t really think in that moment, you just hope your camera setting are correct,” explains Zeller. “You understand right away as a photographer… to be in the right place at the right time, that these things don’t happen… it’s a once in a lifetime thing.”

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“It was really quite amazing.”

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Zeller’s Twitter handle began trending nationally after he used social media to share the photos.

“It was in multiple pieces, that’s the part that was crazy,” says Zeller. “There were dozens of pieces that were travelling all lit up brightly… it was really incredible to see.”

According to NASA, the object turned out to be Chinese space junk.

“It’s part of a Chinese rocket re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere from a satellite that was launched back in December,” said Devon Hamilton, an astronomer at Calgary’s science centre.

“As an object like the rocket fuselage enters into the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s going to break up into pieces. So a number of those pieces would have contributed to the fireball that we saw.”

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Zeller said it was “plain as day” when he saw it, but tricky to capture with his camera. “It was many, many pieces and it traveled the entire length of the sky in 30 seconds.”

“Being in that right place at the right time, it’s an incredible opportunity to share this with the world.”

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Zeller also captured some stunning shots of the aurora visible west of Calgary.

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With files from David Boushy