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Eta Aquarid meteor shower this weekend; was Wednesday night fireball sneak preview?

A spectacular fireball shot through the D.C. region’s western skies Wednesday night, a possible prelude to the Eta Aquarid meteor shower which peaks this weekend.

At least 3 dozen skywatchers in 6 states in the Mid-Atlantic reported the fireball around 11:45 p.m. according to the American Meteor Society. A fireball is defined simply as a larger than normal meteor.

An eyewitness in Leesburg filed this report:

The most fascinating thing I’ve ever seen! I first thought it was a plane crash landing but quickly realized it was a star/meteor! Very bright, bold and wonderful to experience and see!

The streaking fireball was spotted just 4 nights before the peak of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower set for the pre-dawn hours on Sunday, May 5.

EarthSky says close to peak conditions may also occur in the pre-dawn hours Saturday and Monday.

“In a dark sky, especially at more southerly latitudes, the Eta Aquarids can produce up to 20 to 40 meteors per hour,” EarthSky writes. “From mid-northern latitudes, you might only see about 10 meteors per hour.”

A waning crescent moon means just modest interference from moonlight. In the D.C. area, minimal cloud cover should also support good viewing conditions.

The shower is a result of debris from Halley’s comet and is active from April 19 to May 20, despite the May 5 or 6 peak, Earth Sky says.

Thus, it’s possible the fireball seen Wednesday night was part of the spray from this long-duration shower.

UPDATE, 4:24 p.m.: The American Meteor Society says a preceding fireball was observed Wednesday in the Northeast at 9:30 p.m. EDT, or just over 2 hours prior to the Mid-Atlantic fireball.

AMS’ Mike Hankey does not believe either of these fireballs were part of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower due to their timing and location. He writes:

First, both of these fireballs occurred several hours before the Eta Aquarids radiant had even risen. Secondly the radiants for these fireballs were no where near the Eta Aquarids radiant. Event 967 which occurred first, started in the west and headed east , this would place its radiant on the opposite side of the sky from the meteor shower radiant. The second event also happened more than 4 hours before the Eta Aquarids radiant had risen, and this fireball originated in the south west, heading north east, placing its radiant far from that of the meteor shower as well.