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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Bright fireball lights up northern California

By Phil Plait

On Wednesday evening, October 17, around 19:45 local time, a bright meteor blazed across the sky of northern California. Some reports say it was as bright as the full Moon, and there were reports of loud booming noises as well!

Wes Jones of Belmont got this spectacular shot using a fish-eye camera (posted on the NASA/Ames CAMS site):

For comparison, to the upper left of center is Altair, and to the lower right is Vega, two of the brightest stars in the sky! Clearly, this was an intense meteor.

The best video I've seen so far is from the Lick Observatory, though it's out of focus because the camera was newly installed and hadn't been adjusted yet:

As the meteor flares (possibly due to the main body of it fragmenting) you can see the dome of the telescope on the left in silhouette. Another video from the observatory only shows it for a moment, but you can see it fragmenting.

Local TV station ABC7 has spectacular pictures, but I haven't been able to confirm them yet.

A lot of folks are speculating that this is part of the Orionid shower, which peaks this weekend. The direction and timing for the meteor are wrong for that though, so it's certainly not an Orionid. Meteor showers generally don't make fireball like this. Also, showers are pretty frequent, so any random bright meteor has a decent chance of occurring during one just by coincidence. So be wary of claims like that.

The noise reports appear to be real, though. Some people say their houses were shaken like in an earthquake. This means the meteoroid (the solid part ramming through our atmosphere) was of a decent size (like a beachball, maybe? Hard to say) and got low enough in the atmosphere to have the sonic boom carried by air. Most small meteoroids burn up 100 km or so above the Earth, so no noise is heard. The noise coupled with the obvious fragmentation mean that there may be meteorites that hit the ground from this event. It's not yet clear if it fell over the ocean or not, so I'll try to keep up with the news and update this post as I find out more. If you live in the US and ever do see a fireball, it's a good idea to note the direction it's traveling and your location as best you can, and then report it to the American Meteor Society. If you get pictures or videos, send them to me! I'd love to post them if I can.

Picture credit: Wes Jones and the NASA/Ames CAMS site.

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- ⦠and a real meteor over Georgia

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