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Mysterious burst of light over Russia leaves scientists, locals guessing

On Friday evening, a yellow flash filled the skies over Russia's sparsely populated Urals region. Was it a meteor? A rocket launch? No one seems to know.

Mysterious Russian lights: A meteor?

An enormous and as yet totally unexplained fireball eclipsed the skies for more than 10 seconds over Russia's sparsely populated Urals region last Friday – and news of the incident is only now trickling out.

Several locals posted YouTube videos taken from dashcams and smartphones, showing an apparently soundless, bright orange sunburst-like explosion erupting behind evening cloud cover near the town of Rezh, in Sverdlovsk region, about 930 miles east of Moscow. Russian media inquiries to emergency services, the military, and academic astronomers have yielded a host of theories but no hard answers as to the cause of the blast.

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According to the E1.Ru news portal in Yekaterinburg, Russian military sources deny having anything to do with the blast, even though city officials believe ammunition disposal would be the likeliest explanation for the long, slow orange-tinged fireball. Space officials also insist it has nothing to do with them, even though the area lies on a launch pathway from Plesetsk cosmodrome. Rockets have blown up on take-off over the region in the past. A leading unofficial Russian space news website says the last launch from Plesetsk was in October and the next will occur in December.

"Looks like a falling bolide," or meteorite, which evaded detection by the usual array of watchers before hitting our atmosphere, astronomer Viktor Grokhovsky told 66.Ru.

But super-hot meteorites plowing through the atmosphere typically explode with a blinding white flash, say experts. That's exactly what happened in February 2013, when a 10,000-ton space rock blew up amid a series of sonic booms and blinding explosions in the sky over the Urals city of Chelyabinsk.

Chelyabinsk has since turned its meteor strike into a tourist attraction, organizing tours to the multiple places hit by the space fragments and auctioning some of the larger ones off to collectors.

Depending on what the explanation for Rezh's mysterious fireball turns out to be, it might find a way to cash in too.