The American Meteor Society, which documents fireball reports and calculates the path of suspected meteors, believes the space rock traveled south to north about midway between the Atlantic coast of Florida and the western tip of Grand Bahama Island.
That would put it about 40 miles east of West Palm Beach, Fla., easily visible from the Miami to Fort Lauderdale corridor and northward up the coast.
Jay O’Brien, a reporter at CBS 12 in West Palm Beach, was delivering a Facebook Live video when the meteor interrupted his shot in spectacular fashion:
While residents in Florida did not report any sound associated with the meteor, a sonic boom was heard on Grand Bahama Island, accompanied by some shaking. Meteors enter the Earth’s outer atmosphere traveling anywhere from 25,000 to 160,000 mph, slowing down rapidly as they encounter friction from air drag. That friction generates enormous amounts of heat, causing the meteor to ablate, or burn up and glow.
For shooting stars, whose instigating objects are hardly the size of a pebble or a grain of puffed rice, the debris burns up harmlessly in the upper atmosphere long before approaching the surface. Once in a while, however, a much larger object, known as a bolide, will penetrate deeper into the atmosphere.
On rare occasions, a sufficiently large meteor can remain intact as it travels into the lower atmosphere, its speed giving rise to a sonic boom before the meteor either hits the ground or explodes. Usually frictional heating places enough stress on the meteor that it explodes before hitting the ground, yielding a spattering of much smaller, slower-moving fragments. Video suggests that was the case in Florida on Monday night.
While it is possible that some of the fragments, which would become meteorites, reached the surface, they likely did so over the open ocean.
The GOES East weather satellite captured the exploding meteor as its blinding flash lit up the sky, satellite algorithms interpreting it as a lightning flash. The satellite has a special geostationary lightning mapper that is used to plot lightning based on the near-infrared waves they emit; in other words, most sudden, bright flashes of sufficient size are generally lightning, but in this instance, it was a meteor that sparked the flickering.
On Jan. 16, 2018, a six foot wide meteor weighing more than a ton exploded over Michigan, also registering as lightning on the GOES East satellite. Its sonic boom was picked up on seismometers and had the force of a magnitude 2.0 earthquake. It produced a trail of meteorites that were hunted for and collected by hikers. Weather radar even detected the shower of space rocks after the main meteor had exploded.
In the case of Monday night’s meteor, Doppler radars located in Miami and Melbourne, Fla., did not indicate debris. That may mean the main meteor remained intact long enough to make it below the radars’ lowest scan angles. Weather radars are better at spotting numerous small objects than one medium-sized one. That is one of the reasons airplanes do not show up on most conventional S-band weather radars.
Initial speculation had arisen that the Florida fireball could have been linked to a near-Earth asteroid known as GW4 that was slated to pass about 16,000 miles away from Earth. However, the fireball was entirely unrelated.