It turns out the large orange streak Neil Zeller saw was a Chinese rocket booster that broke apart as it re-entered the atmosphere, said Maj. Martin O'Donnell, a spokesman for U.S. Strategic Command.
Zeller was photographing the northern lights west of Calgary around 11 p.m. on Monday when he caught a flash out of the corner of his eye.
"I thought it might have been a plane crashing, just because it was in so many pieces and it was such a big ball," he said. "It didn’t appear to be falling. It just kept going across the sky. So then I thought maybe a large meteor was breaking up, but it was just way too slow."
He swung his camera around and was able to get four, long-exposure shots.
Zeller said it was a "one in a million" experience and a bit of a fluke that he was able to get the photos. He credits the brightness of the aurora borealis.
"A lot of times a bright object in a dark sky will overexpose. You’ll just get a beam of light," he said. "For me to get the individual streaks of light, the individual parts that were burning up in the sky, it was basically a factor of how bright the auroras were."
More than 150 people reported seeing the streak, said Mike Hankey with the American Meteor Society. The reports came from nine western states as well as Alberta and British Columbia.
It lingered in the sky for more than a minute, showing slow movement that is a sure sign of a man-made object re-entering from space, Hankey said. Naturally occurring meteors last just a few seconds.
Utah-based NASA ambassador Patrick Wiggins said such events mostly go unnoticed.
"There are literally thousands of satellites orbiting the earth and these things fall out of the sky all of the time," he said. "This one just happened to be passing over some fairly large metropolitan areas and it did it at night."
There were no reports of damage or injuries, O'Donnell said, pointing to statistics that suggest there is a one in a trillion chance of being hit by space debris.
— CHQR; with files from The Associated Press.