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Failed Russian satellite becomes blazing fireball over the US and Canada

The spacecraft didn't make it to orbit and went out in a blaze of glory instead.

A fireball that blazed a slow trail across the skies above Michigan and other nearby states and provinces Tuesday night wasn't a meteor but instead a spacecraft making an unexpected homecoming. 

Dozens of photos, videos and eyewitness reports came pouring into the American Meteor Society from the Great Lakes region and as far south as Tennessee. 

Astronomer Jonathan McDowell, a leading observer of satellites and other orbital spacecraft, was quick to note on Twitter that the sightings corresponded very closely to "the exact predicted time Kosmos-2551 passed over the region."

Kosmos-2551 was a Russian reconnaissance satellite that launched on Sept. 9 but didn't make it into orbit.  

Videos captured from across the region show a fireball working its way across the evening sky for nearly a minute. This is one hint that the fiery object likely was not natural, as meteors are typically much smaller and can move faster, allowing them to burn up quick. A bulky satellite, on the other hand, can take longer to disintegrate and meets more resistance as it reenters the atmosphere, leading to a more prolonged burn.

Although the images appear to show the artificial satellite edging ever closer to the ground as it makes a run for the horizon, McDowell clarified that it was actually being observed at an altitude of about 40 miles (64 kilometers).

The fireball isn't the only one to be seen this week. The Orionids reached a peak Thursday morning, and fireballs from that meteor shower may continue to light up the skies through the weekend.