The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Photographer captures fireball photobombing SpaceX launch

More than 300 reports of the large meteor streamed in from 13 states.

A stunning meteor streaks through a photo meant to capture a joint SpaceX and NASA launch, which can be seen as a dull strip of white in the background. (Peter Forister/Twitter @Forecaster25)

Photographer Peter Forister has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He has captured foreboding supercell thunderstorms, Mid-Atlantic tornadoes, comets, fall foliage and everything in between. On Wednesday night, he got a bit extra lucky.

Forister had set out to rural central Virginia to photograph a joint SpaceX and NASA launch. Four astronauts were aboard the Dragon Crew-3 mission, which will dock at the International Space Station shortly after 7 p.m. Eastern time Thursday. The Falcon-9 rocket was launched from Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

SpaceX launches another astronaut crew to the International Space Station

He had been aiming for an 80-second exposure showing a time lapse of the rocket as it sailed northeast parallel to the East Coast. Midway through his capture from Gordonsville, Va., a flash of blue light illuminated everything in sight.

“It was super, super bright, brighter than the moon,” Forister said in a phone interview on Thursday morning. The American Meteor Society has already received 379 reports of the brilliant fireball between Georgia and New York state. Forister’s camera was trained on the exact spot the meteor slashed through the skies.

“I imagine I would have been able to read [by the light of the meteor],” Forister said. “I was able to see details in the ground.”

He explained that it was visible for about three seconds, eventually fragmenting as the meteor’s swift speed through the atmosphere resulted in air resistance and friction, causing it to heat up and explode.

“It was a fairly slow meteor; a lot of the long-streaking meteors I see are only half a second,” Forister said. “Then there were visible chunks falling off and glowing red.”

A reddish tinge can be seen on the bottom right of the meteor’s path in his image where fragmentation occurred. Several pulses of light also mark where the “bolide” meteor exploded multiple times.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifted off carrying four astronauts to the International Space Station from the Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 10. (Video: The Washington Post)

The American Meteor Society utilized data from NASA cameras and eyewitness accounts to stitch together the path the meteor probably took. They say it first became visible 48 miles above Greenville, N.C., and moved northwest at 33,000 mph before disintegrating near Macclesfield, a few towns to the west.

Many people in Raleigh, N.C., Richmond, Washington and Baltimore witnessed the spectacle.

Based on the brightness, the Society concluded the comparatively slow-moving meteor, which may have once been part of an asteroid, weighed about 45 pounds and measured roughly 10 inches in diameter. It’s estimated that fireballs this bright, which are somewhat rare, may only be seen an average of once every 200 hours or so of skywatching.

Forister thinks the meteor he captured may have been a leftover from the Taurids shower, which peaks in early- to mid-November. The shower doesn’t produce many shooting stars, but is known for occasionally slinging bright fireballs across the sky. NASA’s All-Sky Fireball Network tracked five Taurid fireballs over the Lower 48 on Wednesday night.

As for Forister, whose collection of photography can be found here, it’s not his first chance encounter with a fireball — and odds are won’t be his last.

“I actually saw a fireball over South Carolina a month ago that was equally as bright, but nobody got a photo of that one,” he said. “So this one is actually the second that I’ve seen in a super short period of time. I’m lucky, but I’m also [always] prepared for this moment. I had a strategy, I executed the strategy. If you do that enough times, you eventually catch a shot like this.”

Forister can check another “career shot” off his photography bucket list, but he still has a few more dream shots he hopes to pursue.

“I have never seen the northern lights,” he laughed. “Not just a little glow. I want purple columns. Once Canada’s open, I’m going.”

Check out these other shots of the meteor captured across the Mid-Atlantic: