California Fireball Excitement Plus Sweet Sights In The Western Sky

A Lyrid fireball blazes across the sky over Ozark, Ark. Sunday morning during the shower's peak. Vega and the meteor radiant are at top center. Thanks and credit to Brian Emfinger. Click photo to visit Brian's website for more photos.

I managed one Lyrid this morning at the start of dawn. A white spark shot out of Lyra when I looked up from the scope to take in the Milky Way and Summer Triangle. Twilight and clouds soon took over, but I was happy and surprised to see my solo sparkler. Lyrid activity drops off quickly after maximum.

Others with clear skies during Sunday morning’s peak reported a good shower with counts of 10-20 meteors per hour and a few fireballs to boot. The International Meteor Organization results show a peak as high as 30-45 meteors around 8 p.m. CDT April 21 before settling down to 15-20 per hour on the 22nd before dawn.

Lisa Warren of Reno photographed the daylight fireball Sunday morning (April 22) while she and her husband, Rick, were walking their dogs north of the city. Credit and copyright: Lisa Warren

People in California and Nevada yesterday didn’t have to bother looking to know a meteor crashed through their sky. Yesterday around 8 a.m. a fireball brighter than the full moon shot across the sky at supersonic speeds creating a sonic boom that rattled windows and nerves alike. Check out the complete sequence of incredible photos taken by Lisa Warren over Reno.

Most meteoroids – what meteors are called before they burn up as meteors – are the size of chocolate chips or small pebbles, but the ones the size of baseballs and softballs we call fireballs. You’ll never forget the sight if you’re lucky enough to see one.

Another fireball, this one from an earlier Perseid meteor shower in August 2006. Credit: Pierre Martin of Arnprior, Ontario, Canada / NASA

Eye witnesses described the fireball’s brightness as somewhere between the full moon and sun. You know it had to be bright because the meteor was seen in full daylight around 8 a.m. Many witnesses reported loud booms that shook their homes. Check out the American Meteor Society’s Fireball Reports and you’ll see that more than 40 people hopped online to share their impressions.

Like objects in your side view mirror, most meteors appear closer than they are. That’s all the more true when they’re exceptionally bright. Studies show however that meteors burn up at least 50 miles overhead. If big enough to survive and land on the ground, the pieces go completely dark 5-12 miles high during the “dark flight” phase. Only if you see a fireball directly overhead would it lie within that distance. Most sightings are well off toward one direction or another, so you have to add your horizontal distance to the meteor’s height to get a true distance. While some meteors are bright enough to make us think they landed over the hill, almost all are many miles away.

According to Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Envronment Office, the source of the blast was a meteoroid about the size of a minivan. Did any fragments survive and land as meteorites? Hard to say just yet. It may have completely disintegrated. I suspect meteorite hunters will now be on the ground talking to eyewitnesses and studying Doppler weather data to determine a trajectory and possible fall site. Fireball sightings aren’t uncommon and many don’t lead to meteorites, but some do. If this is one of those, I’ll be touch with news of the hunt.

As the moon waxes from a thin to a thick crescent over the next few days, it rises up from the west to meet and pass the planet Venus. Created with Stellarium

I’m sure some of you are wondering if the fireball was connected to the Lyrid meteor shower which peaked early Sunday. Most likely it was a coincidence. Meteor shower meteors are generally small bits of grit and dust and don’t produce large fireballs that could reach the ground. Still, the Lyrids are known for there occasional bright meteors, so it remains a possibility.

Last night some of you may have attempted to see the very thin lunar crescent low in the west above the planet Jupiter. Tonight it will be higher up and easier to see as it glides upward to meet Venus on Tuesday.

I drew the map for 45 minutes after sunset to include both planets, but you can go out later if you like when the sky’s darker and Venus still up. The Pleiades or Seven Sisters star cluster will lie to the right of the moon tonight.

During crescent phase only a sliver of the moon is illuminated by sunlight; the rest is “darkly” lit by indirect light. Light is reflected from Earth toward the moon and then reflected from the moon back to us. Called earthshine, think of it as a game of ping pong with light.

2 Responses

    1. astrobob

      It’s hard to say but I’d tend to agree with you. The second sequence with the light out the window – that might even be the sun.

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