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'Ball of Fire' in Sky Was Meteor Shower

By Martin Weil and Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page C07

Not long after nightfall yesterday, the calls started coming in at police departments across the Washington region.

Callers, acting out of curiosity or a sense of responsibility, or both, gave accounts of bright lights flashing across the sky.

"It looked like a ball of fire falling out of the sky," said Cpl. Cynthia Brown, a Maryland State Police dispatcher, recounting what a caller from the Golden Ring area of Baltimore County told her about 7:30 p.m.

It appeared last night that the callers were witnessing part of the Geminid meteor shower.

In general, meteors, or shooting stars, are bits of cosmic dust that burn up as they speed through the atmosphere. The dust usually comes from the deterioration of comets, but scientists say asteroid debris may have produced the Geminids, which are visible in the southern sky.

This manifestation of astronomical pyrotechnics is expected to reach its peak tomorrow night and Tuesday morning. But the shower, which began making its presence known about the beginning of last week, was vivid enough last night for a number of witnesses.

One of them, near Middletown in the western part of Frederick County, told state police of a "fiery ball coming out of the sky," according to a communications officer.

The state police barracks in Pikesville, near Baltimore, got calls about "bright lights shooting through the sky." And in Fairfax County, residents of the Great Falls area telephoned authorities with similar accounts.

The Loudoun County Sheriff's Office told of receiving a number of reports, some of them speculating about the possibility that an unidentified flying object might have been streaking through the skies.

"We sure have" been getting such calls, said a dispatcher at the Fauquier County Sheriff's Office. He said callers gave information about "fire in the sky."

At the Maryland State Police barracks in Waterloo in Howard County, Brown tried to get information from her caller about where the bright falling object might have landed.

"There was no telling," she said. The caller said it just fell. There were no reports last night of anything on the ground being struck.

The flurry of calls was not a total surprise. Les Dorr, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, indicated that the shower was "nothing that was not expected."

The Geminids are so named because they seem to come from the constellation Gemini. But they appear not to be as well known as other showers that occur throughout the year. One reason might be that they occur in December, making outdoor viewing somewhat less pleasant.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company