Thunder and lightning?
Some sort of midair explosion?
An enemy airstrike?
With a rumble that shook the Earth, a bright burst of light illuminated the sky over southeastern Michigan on Tuesday night, leaving locals wondering what in the world had happened.
“I went to turn and I noticed a ball of flame coming at an angle,” Danny McEwen Jr. told the Detroit News. He said he was driving when “it just blew up into a bunch of sparks. I didn’t even know what to think. It was kind of odd how orange the sky was behind me and this blaze of flame out of nowhere.”
Bystander videos captured the moment a white light appeared to explode in the heavens. The United States Geological Survey reported the equivalent of a magnitude 2.0 earthquake.
NASA officials had a simple explanation, saying a meteoroid entered Earth’s atmosphere about 8:08 p.m.
“It was definitely a meteor,” Bill Cooke, lead for NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, told The Washington Post.
Cooke said the fireball was caused by a small asteroid about one to two yards in diameter, moving at 28,000 mph. When it entered into the atmosphere, he said, it heated up and began to melt away, producing the bright light that people saw.
At least once a month or so, Cooke said, objects this size make their way into the atmosphere. But “most people don’t see meteors this bright,” he noted.
The USGS said the meteoroid entered about five miles from New Haven, Mich.
Shooting stars, or meteors, are bits of interplanetary material falling through Earth’s atmosphere and heated to incandescence by friction. These objects are called meteoroids as they are hurtling through space, becoming meteors for the few seconds they streak across the sky and create glowing trails.
Meteorites are the pieces that land on the ground, according to NASA.
In the case of the Michigan meteoroid, NASA’s Cooke said, “there are probably meteorites on the ground in southeast Michigan right now. . . . I’m sure the meteorite hunters will be out in force.”
NASA said Wednesday on its Meteor Watch Facebook page that “we have calculated that this was a very slow moving meteor — speed of about 28,000 miles per hour.
“This fact, combined with the brightness of the meteor (which suggests a fairly big space rock at least a yard across), shows that the object penetrated deep into the atmosphere before it broke apart (which produced the sounds heard by many observers). It is likely that there are meteorites on the ground near this region — one of our colleagues at JSC has found a Doppler weather radar signature characteristic of meteoritic material falling to earth.
“Pieces of an asteroid lying near Detroit? Let’s see what the meteorite hunters find.”
But experts explained that finding those meteorites could be challenging.
“It exploded, and the object itself didn’t hit,” Michael Narlock, head of astronomy at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, told the Detroit News. “So we’re talking about finding the debris field, and that’s hard to determine. There’s still some debate about what path it took.”
On Tuesday and early Wednesday, social media users posted videos from dashboard cameras and home surveillance systems showing the moment the meteor burst into light.
“meteor scared the buhjesus out of us,” one person wrote on Twitter.
Then “The Michigan Meteor” even got its own Twitter handle.
Bob Trembley, a former outreach officer for the Warren Astronomical Society and volunteer NASA/JPL solar system ambassador, told the Detroit News that although meteoroids are not rare, the fireballs, or bolides, are.
“Anybody that saw it is lucky,” he said.
This post has been updated.