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Using fireball networks to track more frequent reentries: Falcon 9 upper-stage orbit determination from video recordings

A Correction to this article was published on 11 February 2022

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On February 16, 2021, an artificial object moving slowly over the Mediterranean was recorded by the Spanish Meteor Network (SPMN). Based on astrometric measurements, we identified this event as the reentry engine burn of a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle’s upper stage. To study this event in detail, we adapted the plane intersection method for near-straight meteoroid trajectories to analyze the slow and curved orbits associated with artificial objects. To corroborate our results, we approximated the orbital elements of the upper stage using four pieces of “debris” cataloged by the U.S. Government’s Combined Space Operations Center. Based on these calculations, we also estimated the possible deorbit hazard zone using the MSISE90 model atmosphere. We provide guidance regarding the interference that these artificial bolides may generate in fireball studies. Additionally, because artificial bolides will likely become more frequent in the future, we point out the new role that ground-based detection networks can play in the monitoring of potentially hazardous artificial objects in near-Earth space and in determining the strewn fields of artificial space debris.

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This research was supported by the research project (Grant No. PGC2018-097374-B-I00, PI: JMT-R), which is funded by FEDER/Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación-Agencia Estatal de Investigación. This project has also received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme (Grant No. 865657) for the project “Quantum Chemistry on Interstellar Grains” (QUANTUMGRAIN). We also express appreciation for the valuable video recordings obtained from Benicàssim (Castellón) by Vicent Ibáñez (AVAMET).

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Correspondence to Eloy Peña-Asensio.

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Eloy Peña Asensio holds a degree in aerospace engineering from the Technical University of Madrid (UPM), a Master degree in aerospace science and technology from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC), and a Master degree in astrophysics and cosmology from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB). He has two years of experience at the Institute for Space Studies of Catalonia (IEEC) developing a system for the automatic detection and analysis of meteors and large bolides for the Spanish Meteor Network (SPMN). In 2018, he performed an internship at the Manipal Institute of Technology in India for three months while working on the system identification of twin rotor systems. He was also working to develop a drone system for drifting boat sightings using computer vision for the NGO Open Arms in conjunction with the HEMAV foundation in 2019. He is currently working on his Ph.D. thesis on meteorites under the supervision of Albert Rimola and Josep M. Trigo-Rodríguez at UAB in the context of the European ERC QUANTUMGRAIN project. He was awarded by the Aerospace and Electronics Systems Society (AESS) of the IEEE for the best national master’s thesis. He was recognized by the city council of his hometown as an extraordinary youth in 2021. E-mail:

Josep M. Trigo-Rodriguez obtained his degree in physics at the University of Valencia in 1997 and his Ph.D. degree in theoretical physics (astrophysics) in 2002 under the direction of Professor Jordi Llorca (UPC) and Professor Juan Fabregat (UV). He was a visitor at the Ondrejov Observatory during his pre-doctoral stay. In 2003, he received a USA-Spanish grant that allowed him to continue his career in a postdoctoral position at the Institute of Geophysics & Planetary Physics of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and the NASA Astrobiology Center at UCLA under the supervision of Professor John Wasson and Doctor Alan Rubin. After almost three years of work on the transport of water and volatiles in primitive meteorites (carbonaceous chondrites), he returned to Spain in 2006 with a Juan de la Cierva grant to join the Institute of Space Sciences (ICE, CSIC-IEEC) in Barcelona, Catalonia. In 2009, he gained his position as a tenured scientist of the Upper Research Council (CSIC) at the same research institute. Since 2010, Dr. Trigo-Rodriguez has been the leader of the Meteorite, Minor Bodies, and Planetary Sciences Group at ICE (CSIC-IEEC). His current research focuses on the formation of primitive solar system minor bodies (comets and asteroids), the study of their fragments in space (dust, meteoroids), and the analysis and characterization of surviving rocks arriving on the Earth (meteorites). These “minor bodies” provide clues regarding the origin of the solar system because they retained the protoplanetary disc components in their interiors. As a consequence, these undifferentiated bodies preserved clues regarding the chemical and isotopic conditions prevailing in the early solar system. Since 2012, Dr. Trigo-Rodríguez has been teaching astrobiology, astrophysics, and planetary sciences in two international master’s programs: MasterCosmosBCN (postgraduate program of High Energy Physics, Astrophysics & Cosmology) and the Valencian International University (VIU). He has written 15 astronomy books in Catalan, English, and Spanish, and has received several awards for his scientific career and outreach tasks. Dr. Trigo-Rodríguez is the Chief Editor of Advances in Astronomy and the Associate Editor of three journals: Galaxies, Meteoritics and Planetary Science, and Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Science. He is also an editor of impact studies, which is a collection of books dedicated to impact hazards published by Springer. E-mail:

Marco Langbroek is a multidisciplinary scientist who studied prehistoric archeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He obtained his Ph.D. degree in paleolithic archeology at Leiden University in 2003 under the supervision of Professor Wil Roebroeks. He subsequently branched into other fields of science. These include asteroid discovery, meteor and meteorite research, and space situational awareness (SSA). He is a well-known tracker and analyst of classified military satellites. He has worked as an academic researcher among the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University, at the Institute for Geo- and Bioarchaeology (IGBA) at the VU University Amsterdam, and at the Department of Geology at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden (the former Dutch National Museum of Natural History). He is currently working in the Department of Astronomy of Leiden University. From 2008 to 2012, with funding from a VENI grant from the Dutch National Science Foundation NWO, he studied the spatial behavior and cognition of Neandertals at the VU University Amsterdam. From 2012 to 2019, while working at VU University and later at Naturalis, he was the PI of the Diepenveen Meteorite Research Consortium. He and a large international team of co-workers published a study on the unique Dutch diepenveen CM-an carbonaceous chondrite. In the Astronomy Department of Leiden University, he currently works as a consultant on space situational awareness issues in the SOT project of Leiden University with the Space Security Center of the Royal Dutch Air Force. He is still affiliated as a guest researcher at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center. He received the Van Es Prize for Dutch Archeology in 1998 and the Doctor J. van der Bilt Prize of the Royal Dutch Association for Meteorology and Astronomy (KNVWS) in 2012. In 2008, the IAU named the asteroid (183294) Langbroek in his honor. He is active as a popular science educator, including appearances in news media and on Dutch radio and television on topics such as meteorites, fireballs, and satellites. E-mail:

Albert Rimola graduated with a degree in chemistry from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB, 2002) and received his Ph.D. degree in theoretical and computational chemistry (UAB, 2007) under the supervision of Professor M. Sodupe. He then conducted post-doctoral work (2007–2009) in a group under Professor Piero Ugliengo (University of Turin) and in 2010, he returned to the UAB. During these years, he obtained several grants and contracts through competitive international calls. He is currently a Ramón y Cajal researcher at UAB in a prestigious five-year tenure-track position. His research focuses on the simulation of chemical processes through accurate quantum chemical calculations using both molecular and periodic ab initio approaches. His thesis focused on the interactions of open-shell transition metal cations with probe biomolecules by combining quantum chemical calculations and mass spectrometry experiments, which were linked to investigate the role of metal cations in Alzheimer’s disease. He acquired extensive knowledge of various quantum chemical methods and deep expertise in the simulation of chemical reactivity. During his post-doctoral research, he studied the electronic structures of different solid-state periodic systems and their adsorptive and chemical reactivity properties, acquiring extensive experience in surface modeling. His main expertise is in the simulation of chemical reactivity and modeling of solid-state surfaces, and his current research activities merge and exploit these two skills, which are of great importance in the field of grain surface chemistry. E-mail:

Antonio J. Robles studied architecture at the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Sevilla. He has been a member of the College of Architects of Seville since 2003. He is passionate about astronomy and has been collaborating as an amateur with the Spanish Meteor Network (SPMN). He has contributed significantly to the increase in large fireballs registered in the Iberian Peninsula from his detection station in Estepa, Seville. E-mail:

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Peña-Asensio, E., Trigo-Rodríguez, J.M., Langbroek, M. et al. Using fireball networks to track more frequent reentries: Falcon 9 upper-stage orbit determination from video recordings. Astrodyn 5, 347–358 (2021).

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  • fireball
  • reentry
  • deorbit
  • artificial meteor
  • multistation