From time to time, pieces of old satellites and rockets re-enter and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Usually the space hardware is long past it’s warranty and no longer working. Most of the hardware is small and completely burns up leaving nothing to hit the ground.
For very large spacecraft that can survive re-entry, spacecraft operators command the spacecraft to re-enter over a part of the world with no population. Most of the Pacific Ocean makes for a good large safe place for re-entries.
On Sept 29, a 13-ton spacecraft called “Jules Verne” was commanded to re-enter over the Pacific Ocean. “Jules Verne” is a European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft and also goes by the name ATV-1, where ATV doesn’t stand for “all terrain vehicle” but for “automated transfer vehicle”. Launched on March 9, it delivered supplies and fuel to the International Space Station.
An international campaign which included NASA scientists from the SETI Institute the NASA Ames Research Center, flew two NASA aircraft near the point of re-entry. They have a nice website which includes photos of the re-entry.
Due to the location of the re-entry in the South Pacific, this was not one of the many fireballs that have been reported over the past week.