Did you see it? A fireball lit up the East Coast around 10:57 p.m. Tuesday night, emitting a brilliant green flash as it streaked across the sky.
A fireball is a meteor that is larger than normal and brighter than the planet Venus in the night sky.
Tuesday night’s meteor was so bright that weather satellites detected it as it burned in Earth’s atmosphere.
The American Meteor Society received more than 400 reports of the meteor, which was seen across a broad swath stretching from Roanoke to Boston. One observer in Washington, D.C., described it as “so fast, so beautiful.”
Another lucky spectator watched it from the Tidal Basin, writing that “it moved somewhat slowly and was barely over the tree line when it appeared to grow in size and brilliance.” He filed a report with the AMS, saying it eventually petered out “in a series of flashes and fragments.”
Vincent Meller of Croydon, Pa., was camping in Patapsco Valley State Park west of Baltimore. He was enjoying a campfire and noticed the meteor as soon as it appeared. “The front of it was pulsing red and white while the tail looked the color of a blue butane torch,” he wrote. “The tail of the meteor was really long. I’d say it was visible for about 8 to 10 seconds.
“I actually thought about taking my phone and videotaping it but I was just gobsmacked when I saw it.”
The fireball was visible for an unusually long time — 7 to 9 seconds, offering plenty of time to ogle its otherworldly hues. The American Meteor Society stitched together all the reports they received to compute a preliminary three-dimensional trajectory for the meteor. They estimate it took a north-to-south track just offshore east of the Delaware Bay “and ended its flight in the Atlantic Ocean in front of Bethany Beach, Delaware."
The meteor was also picked up by GOES-16, a weather satellite that, among other things, maps lightning. It charted a sudden uptick in lightning activity 15 miles east of southern New Jersey last night over the waters, but there were no storms around. It was a false signal triggered by infrared light from the meteor.
When a meteor enters Earth’s atmosphere, it encounters extreme friction. Just like the warmth created when you rub your palms together, the space rock begins to heat up as it grinds against air molecules at supersonic speeds. When objects reach high enough temperatures, they emit photons. That makes a meteor glow.
All this heat eats away at the meteor, vaporizing it into a trail of luminous dust that can stick around for a few seconds. Occasionally, the stress it endures in the middle or lower atmosphere can cause the meteor to fragment into stone-like shards that rain down. But meteorite hunters ought not get their hopes up. According to the American Meteor Society, “if anything survived, it’s in the water.”
Fireball meteors aren’t terribly rare; a bright one like this can be seen from most spots on Earth once every couple of months. But that doesn’t mean spotting them is easy. It’s a game of patience and luck — since there’s no way to predict when one of these events may occur. This one was visible for an exceptional period during its descent over the Mid-Atlantic.
Twin fireballs in two hours bolted above the capital on Dec. 10 last year.
Below are additional eyewitness reports of Tuesday night’s spectacle from Twitter: