From North Carolina to Maine, the Mid-Atlantic and New England were treated to a brilliant display of cosmic beauty Wednesday night when a meteor burned up overhead. It was the second in two days to blaze over the Northeast, coming immediately after of an equally impressive fireball in Canada.
Reports starting pouring in around 11:15 Wednesday night, of a bright, blue meteor illuminating the skies. It was spotted in New York; Boston; Hartford, Conn., and Portland, Maine, with more than 250 eyewitness accounts flooding the American Meteor Society’s website.
“It was utterly sublime and indeed terrifying,” read one report from an observer at the tip of Long Island. The American Meteor Society’s analysis suggests the meteor traveled almost directly overhead of the observer’s location. “I have seen many bright meteors over the years, but this was the most... awe-inspiring,” the observer said. Another observer nearby wrote, 'it was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen."
The society compiled all the reports it received, combining apparent direction from each to reconstruct the meteor’s potential path. Based on preliminary results, it appears that the meteor — which was visible for between three and five seconds — first entered view over the open ocean, about 45 miles offshore southeast of Long Island. It then traveled northwest, crossing into Connecticut airspace before likely exploding in the mid-atmosphere just northeast of New Haven.
Some observers reported a “terminal flash,” supporting a probable explosion. It’s not uncommon for the immense thermal and aerodynamic forces a meteor experiences to shatter it into fragmented bits. This often manifests itself in a sudden flare-up of light, occasionally followed by a peppering of smaller sparks as lesser fragments burn up.
“The meteor... increased in brightness in a burst of light before disappearing,” wrote an observer in the northern New Haven suburbs. “There [were also] some quick yellowish dots of light trailing behind it that quickly disappeared. They looked somewhat similar to the trail of sparks that appears behind a firework.”
Of the 256 filed reports, none indicated any sound accompanying the meteor; that suggests any explosion that occurred was probably rather high above the ground. This lessens the chance of any meteorites raining down. A review of National Weather Service Doppler radar data offered no signs of any meteor-related debris surviving to the ground. There was also no unusual seismic data, which can sometimes show shaking if a meteoric boom jostles the ground. That wasn’t the case here. It did, however, show up on satellite imagery where GOES-16 mistook the flashes as lightning.
If you’re hunting for space rocks, you may have to visit our neighbors to the north. They, too, got a fireball of their own in the wee hours of Wednesday, at 2:44 a.m. Western University’s Physics and Astronomy department operates an all-sky camera network in collaboration with NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. Their cameras were rolling when a meteor brighter than the full moon lit up the skies:
Astronomy professor Peter Brown said that 10 of the network’s cameras captured the meteor, which “likely dropped a small number of meteorites.” He says the fireball penetrated deep in Earth’s atmosphere, slowing down, as well. “This is a good indicator that material survived,” Brown said. The most likely zone is “in the Bancroft area, specifically near the small town of Cardiff.” Brown’s team estimated the meteoroid as “roughly the size of a small beach ball.”
The back-to-back fireballs have some wondering whether a meteor shower — like the Southern Delta Aquariids — could be behind the stellar spectacle. The short answer? Probably not.
The Southern Delta Aquariids favors the Southern Hemisphere, with bright meteors seldom visible this far north of the equator. The shower doesn’t often produce fireballs — in stark contrast to the August Perseids, a prolific fireball producer — and the meteors travel slower than Wednesday morning’s visitor. In any case, the buzz has many excited for arguably the best meteor shower of the year, a little over two weeks away.
In the meantime, keep an eye up. You never know when you might get to wish upon a shooting star.