Fireball Over Duluth!

A bright meteor blazes across the Bowl of the Big Dipper several years back. Photo: Bob King

Were you one of the lucky ones to see the brilliant, flaming object plunge over the region about 7:15 p.m. last night? People all the way from Cook County along Lake Superior’s North Shore to Duluth to the Spooner area in northern Wisconsin all reported seeing what appears to be the same object. Audrey Monicken, who lives on Park Point, said she was watching TV when she caught the sight.

"I saw a flaming thing come down out of the sky," she said, and described the object as about the size of a mattress with red flames. From her vantage point, Monicken said the object seemed to disappear in the middle of the bay.

Then we have this description from Wendy Hamm:
"My daughter and I were driving across the Bong Bridge (heading to Superior) when we saw the object in the sky which was on its way down (large, green with red on the bottom and the size of an average round dinner table). It appeared to land in the water/ice in between the Bong Bridge and railroad bridge or possibly where the old Arrowhead Bridge was located. Someone might want to check that area out. And I thought objects from space always landed in the ocean!!"

Brad Wick with the Duluth Police Department checked with the Duluth International Airport in case the object was a plane in distress, but no planes were in the area at the time. So what was it? The most likely explanation is a brilliant meteor called a fireball. In a lifetime you might see a half dozen of these spectacular sights, but they occur somewhere over Earth every day and night.

Every meteor or "shooting star" you see is a fragment of a comet or asteroid. The small ones might only be the size of grain of sand, but the larger ones like last night’s can range from pebble-sized to many meters. While still in outer space, fragments destined to become a meteors are called meteoroids. When they enter Earth’s atmosphere at speeds from  25,000 to 160,000 mph, they vaporize in a bright flash, creating a brilliant trail we see as a meteor. Because they’re so bright and with no ready clues to their true distance, we’re usually tricked into thinking meteors are very close by. If one happens to fade out over your downtown you might think it fell on Main Street. In reality meteors burn up some 70 miles over our heads — and that’s if you see one straight up at the top of the sky. If you’re watching a fireball off in one direction or another, you have to add in the horizontal distance between you and the object. A more typical distance between you and a bright meteor would be closer to a hundred miles or more. Our fireball likely landed miles to the west of the bay.

The outer layer of most meteorites is melted during atmospheric entry and converted to a black "fusion crust" like this stony meteorite displays. Photo: Bob King

If a meteor is large enough to survive the friction and pressure of atmospheric entry and lands in pieces on the ground it’s called a meteorite. A meteor destined to become a meteorite usually fades out about 30 miles above the ground and continues in "dark fall" until it strikes the ground. The larger the object falling, the more likely it will create a sonic boom or rumblings like cannon fire on its way down. Did anyone out there hear anything at the time? Could fragments have reached the ground? Unless someone actually sees and hears the objects falling nearby, chances are that this meteor — if it did produce meteorites — will be extremely difficult to find. Most fireballs produce a great show but vaporize to dust. Given the vast surface area of the Earth, meteorites land with regularity, but actual  witnessed meteorite falls are uncommon. On average meteorites from falls are recovered only about five to ten times a year.

Let’s assume for a moment that last night’s fireball made it all the way down. How would we go about finding it? We’d have to gather many eyewitness reports of brightness, time and direction of travel and then triangulate a possible fall location. Meteorite hunters would then "work" the area with their eyes and metal detectors to look for fresh, black, rounded and fragmented rocks. The black coating on a fresh meteorite is called fusion crust and the result of frictional heating during its plummit through the atmosphere. Fusion crust is only a couple millimeters thick; the inside of the meteorite still holds onto the chill of outer space. Most meteorites contain iron-nickel metal which a properly tuned metal detector can detect. Another more recent technique is using Doppler weather radar to pick up the dust and debris trail from a falling meteor. Precise data like that is invaluable in helping to  pinpoint the fall location.

Fragments of the Ash Creek meteorite that fell in Texas on February 15, 2009. Here are 11 stones from the collection of Karl Aston. Regmaglypts are little hollows left on a meteorite’s surface after softer materials there were melted away during the fall. Credit: Randy Korotov – Washington University in St. Louis. More info HERE.

Doppler was used to help find last year’s well-publicized Ash Creek fall last February near West, Texas. Needless to say, it’s a lot easier to find meteorite fragments if you’re searching farm fields and open prairie than a region covered by forests and lakes! Still, the more information we have about this object the better the chances are of recovering any fragments if any survived.

All this time I’ve been talking meteor fragments but there’s also the small possibility the flaming object was a piece of manmade space junk. I haven’t seen any postings on a listserv on the subject but a small piece coming down could easily mimic a meteor.

If you have any additional information about the object that fell, please click on the Comments link below and share your story with us. And if you have a photo, we’re crazy to see it. Thanks!

(Material from the Duluth News Tribune was used in this article.)

19 Responses

  1. Liss

    My husband and I saw this same fireball in Hibbing, MN a little after 7:00 on March 3, 2010. It was amazing colors, bright green, firey red and orange, along with bright white, and larger than any “shooting star” I have ever seen! That was a sighting I’ll remember.

  2. Dean

    I saw this too – and it was one of the coolest things I have ever seen! I was sitting out on the enclosed deck area of Blackwoods on London Road looking at a person that was sitting in the corner closest to Perkins. I could not believe my eyes. From my vantage point – it appeared to come down in St. Louis Bay somewhere. It looked like it was heading toward the Lift Bridge, although it was farther SW. Anyway, I thought I was going a little crazy, but it was so cool 🙂

  3. Rhino

    I saw the one that happened a couple years back. Wished I would have caught this one. Congrats to those that did.

  4. astrobob

    Thanks everyone and keep ’em comin’. Can someone give us the direction of travel? Was it east to west or …?

  5. olitenup

    It was spectacular to see! It was quite large, and the colors very distinctive. It came east to west with a long, broad tail. It appeared so close, that I wondered if it landed on the hillside.

    At first I wondered, in disbelief, if a piece of an engine fell off an airplane, as I live under the airport approach pattern, in Piedmont. But it moved with such determination, that I quickly dispelled that, and went to this web site to see if anyone had reported the occurrence.

    It was so cool!

  6. Dean

    For me, the movement from the Blackwoods deck (if looking at Perkins) was upper left to lower right. Looked as if it were heading toward the Saint Louis Bay or the Harbor from above the Park Point side of the lift bridge to the right of the lift bridge. Honestly, it was one of the coolest things ever! I feel so lucky as the other 10 people at the table did not see it.

  7. Larry

    I saw what appeared to be a tumbling object that was on fire with bright red and yellow flames. I’m by Nelson Lake in Hayward, Wi. and I was looking south-west as I saw it. My first thought was that a plane had gone down in the Spooner area.
    I’m wondering if it was a part of the light witnessed in Duluth?

  8. Larry

    I saw what appeared to be a tumbling object that was on fire with bright red and yellow flames. I’m by Nelson Lake in Hayward, Wi. and I was looking south-west as I saw it. My first thought was that a plane had gone down in the Spooner area.
    I’m wondering if it was a part of the light witnessed in Duluth?

  9. astrobob

    Larry, did you note the time you saw it? Also how high in the sky? You can use the “outstretched fist” method. One fist held vertically at the end of your outstretched arm equals 10 degrees of sky. Anyone else who saw it please let me know how many “fists” high it was when at its highest and then when you last saw it. Thanks guys!

  10. Thomas G.

    I’m not sure if it was the same meteor. From the descriptions of it falling into the lake, I think it might be a different one. But last night here in the Twin Cities I saw a meteor streaking north to south across the sky, around 7:00 pm, while I was out walking the dog. First time in my life I have ever seen one, and I won’t forget it. It was at about 30 degrees above the horizon to the south east when it flashed into a large yellow-white ball, and quickly disappeared. Amazing.

  11. Liss

    What I saw was in the southeast part of the sky, it was falling almost straight down, but slightly to the right (west?) from my viewpoint. It disintegrated and disappeared very close to the ground.

  12. John McLoughlin

    When I saw it I was heading west on Superior Street just past the intersection with 21st Avenue East. Very bright, but I didn’t notice any colors to it, just brilliant hot white. As I saw it, it seemed to fall at a slight curve East to West from above the Aerial Bridge towards the Bay. It seemed so close I thought it landed in the bay just west of the Blatnik Bridge or in Superior. Very cool sight!

  13. Ty

    I got to see it last night around 7pm last night. 3-3-2010 I was leaving the miller hill mall coming out of th food court doors. We came out of the doors and turned left and saw this very bright white light and the tail was a yellow red. It looked like it was over the perkins going towards the lake. It was amazing.. If I use the fist degree thing it looked to be 4 fists. It was amazing

  14. L Schmitz

    We live between Walker & Akeley and were coming home Wed night. Saw this large fireball fall from the sky – looked like it came straight down. We were heading straight East at the time. Figured it was a meteor, and then read in the paper that others had seen it. We are about 120 miles west of Duluth.

  15. V Painovich

    My friend and I were cross country skiing at Banning State Park (near Sandstone, MN)right around 7pm and witnessed the amazing meteor! We just happened to be by the boat launch (clearing on the Kettle Rivers edge) when we both saw the extremely bright white streak across the southwestern sky which then turned into a firey orange fireball about a fist above the tree line. It was spectacular!! We both could not believe our eyes and comment that it seemed close (I had goose bumps!).

  16. Lori-Superior

    I did too see this fireball when heading south on Hwy 35 in Superior. It flew over the hwy and looked like it landed in a field somewhere across from Stardusk Estates. Beautiful object with numerous flashes of light following it. It was amazingly bright and so close to the ground. I’m lucky to have caught such a rare sighting!

  17. Lynn

    I live in Brainerd, and I saw it too! I was heading east on Crow Wing County Road 48, stopped at the intersection of 48 and 371. I saw the bright green fireball with showers of golden sparks going southwest, and it looked like it may have landed near the Mississippi. I was sure that I had seen a plane crash, and expected to see ambulances and firetrucks going by very soon! It scared me to tell the truth. Now that I know what it was, I’m so happy to have seen it!

  18. Melvin and Marge Suihkonen

    We saw the fireball at approx 7:20pm on March 5 near Buhl, Minnesota(County Road 457). Object was size of round patio table with green and red tail. Object appeared to pass over the tree tops heading west and appeared to land in the woods between Co. Rd 457 and Hwy 25.

  19. Marcia

    I also sighted the “fireball” last Wed. evening. I was looking out the south-facing windows when I saw a bright white oval shape with a blue ring around it and a bright tail following it. It was sailing to the ground at about a 45 degree angle from the east toward the west.

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