Spectacular fireball over Pittsburgh / Juvenile moon alert

Pittsburgh fireball February 17

A fireball meteor at least as bright as the full moon flared over the Pittsburgh region around 4:50 a.m. Eastern time Tuesday morning. The object, detected by three NASA meteor cameras, was moving at a speed of 45,000 miles per hour. Based on its brightness, NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office estimated the object at 2 feet across with a weight of 500 pounds. Something like a very heavy TV falling out of the sky.

“I’ve seen many meteor showers and this wasn’t anything like that. Instead of crossing the upper atmosphere, this feel almost directly down and brighter than any thing I’ve ever seen of this nature,” reported John D. of Elyria, Ohio. “It looked so big that my son and I expected to hear or see an impact.”

Based on data from pictures taken by multiple cameras, an orbit for the Pittsburgh fireball could be made. Originating in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, it came a long way to get to PA.Copyright David L. Clark, prepared by NASA MEO

Based on pictures taken by multiple cameras, NASA scientists determined an orbit for the Pittsburgh fireball. Originating in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, it came a long way to get to PA. Copyright David L. Clark, prepared by NASA MEO

“The entire landscape was lit up like daytime. Startling experience. I was very fortunate to be looking out window at the time.” So wrote Robert M. of Clarion, Penn. in his report to the American Meteor Society’s fireball reporting website.

Map showing reported sightings of the fireball. To date, 125 reports have been received. Credit: AMS

Map showing reported sightings of the fireball. To date, 125 reports have been received. Credit: AMS

NASA’s cameras first spotted the meteor at an altitude of 60 miles northwest of Pittsburgh and last saw it 13 miles above Kittanning, northeast of Pittsburgh. Around 13 miles altitude, the meteoroid entered its “dark flight” phase, when the air slowed it down enough to drop in free fall.

When we see a meteor, we don’t actually see the object itself but rather a brilliant “tube” of ionized air caused by the rock’s incredibly speedy passage through the atmosphere. Once a meteoroid loses sufficient speed, it no longer has the energy to ionize or make the air glow around it and falls in dark flight.

Earth seen from the perspective of the meteoroid moments before it entered our atmosphere to become a fireball. Click to see the movie. Credit:

Earth seen from the perspective of the meteoroid moments before it entered our atmosphere to become a fireball. Click to see the movie. Credit: Copyright David L. Clark, prepared by NASA MEO

Some people heard sonic booms during the fall, a good sign that the meteoroid (what you call a meteorite before it hits the ground) fragmented and dropped pieces on the ground east of Kittanning. According to Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Office, seismographs in the region recorded the pressure wave created by the meteoroid’s flight.

Like most meteors and meteorites, this one’s a visitor from the main asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. If pieces did survive the atmosphere’s ferocity, may I be the first to welcome them to their new home.

Watch for a 1-day-old super-thin crescent moon below the duo of Venus and Mars tonight. This map shows the sky about 35 minutes after sundown. Source: Stellarium

Watch for a 1-day-old super-thin crescent moon below the duo of Venus and Mars tonight. This map shows the sky about 35 minutes after sundown. Source: Stellarium

On another note, I wanted to remind moon lovers that a very young, very thin 1-day-old moon will be visible during early twilight in the western sky this evening starting about 25 minutes after sundown.

The moon’s about about one fist held at arm’s length below the pair of Mars and Venus. Tonight’s act is a warm-up for tomorrow night’s very close gathering of the moon with the two planets. For more information on that event, click HERE.

Stargazing on Christmas night

Merry Christmas and a happy holiday! I hope you’re enjoying time with family and friends and a clear night is in the forecast. Should you poke your head out tonight, here’s what’s up.

Look for the crescent moon and Mars in the southwestern sky at the end of twilight tonight December 25th. Comet Finlay and Mars will still be tight the next few nights.  The alignment is line-of-sight only — the two are actually about 45 million miles apart. Stellarium

At nightfall, a pretty crescent moon ornaments the dim constellation of Capricornus not far from Mars. Barely half a degree to the planet’s east a 6-inch or larger telescope will net you Comet 15P/Finlay, now fading from its recent outburst. It’s currently magnitude 9.6 with a little tail pointing to the east.

Comet 15P/Finlay passed only 1/6th of a degree from Mars on December 23-24. This photo was taken on the 24th and shows the glaring planet and comet almost touching. Click for a map to help you find Finlay in your telescope. Credit: Damian Peach

In a remarkable coincidence, comets have passed very close to the planet Mars twice this year. Comet Siding Spring drew physically close on and around October 19th, while Comet Finlay only appears next to the planet thanks to a lucky line-of-sight alignment.

A grand entry of stars dances across the southeastern sky around 10 o’clock local time. Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy will be 10° high at that hour in the constellation Columba the Dove as seen from the northern U.S. and even higher from the central and southern states. Stellarium

Later tonight, around 10 o’clock, look to the south. Orion has now climbed boldly into view along with sparkling Sirius and the “Winter Triangle” figure. Tucked below Lepus the Hare you’ll find our Christmas comet, Lovejoy, now glowing at magnitude 5.5 and faintly visible to the naked eye from a dark sky location. Binoculars show it as a big ball of fuzz. For more information and a map showing its travels in the coming nights, click HERE.

Comet Lovejoy on December 23 looks like a Roman candle with a blue coma and long, faint tail. Credit: Michael Jaeger

Photos of Lovejoy show a huge coma or comet atmosphere more than half the size of the full moon tinted green from fluorescing carbon and cyanogen molecules; its super-skinny tail glows blue from light given off by carbon monoxide excited by ultraviolet light from the Sun.

Jupiter is easy to see now in the eastern sky in Leo around 10 o’clock local time. Stellarium

If you now direct your gaze to the east around 10 p.m., Jupiter jumps right out. After Sirius and the moon, it’s the brightest nighttime object the sky this winter. Use the planet to help you find the Sickle or head of Leo the Lion and its brightest star, Regulus.

Jupiter in binoculars tonight around 10 p.m. (CST). All four of its bright moons will be strung out in a nearly straight line very close to the planet (big glow at center). Stellarium

Sharply-focused and steadily held 10x binoculars will show all four of its bright moons, assuming one or more aren’t passing either behind or front of the planet or in eclipse. Lucky for us, Io, Europa and Ganymede will line up in a neat row east of Jupiter with Callisto well off to its west tonight. How many will you see?

Wow! What a blast. This fireball lit up Japanese skies early this morning. The Belt of Orion is at upper right. Credit: SonotaCo

Finally, reports are coming in about a powerfully bright fireball that streaked across Japan’s skies around 2 a.m. local time this Christmas morning. I’ve not been able to track down a brightness estimate, but the pictures show an object at least as brilliant as the full moon.

Camelopardalid meteor show more a trickle than a storm

A bright Camelopardalid meteor flashes across the sky near the Cassiopeia-Andromeda border this morning (May 24). Credit: Bob King

I could have stayed up all night. Wait a minute, I did. On the way home after hours of meteor watching I stopped the car on the empty road and got out to admire the crescent moon. It was 3:30 and already dawn brightened the northeast sky.

A long-trailed Cam tears across the Milky Way inside the Summer Triangle asterism late last night May 23. Credit: Bob King

From e-mails, online reports and my own 3-hour vigil staring into one of the most beautiful star-studded skies in months, the ‘Cams’ weren’t the spectacle we anticipated. Many skywatchers sacrificed sleep to stand outside in the small hours of the morning and saw at best a handful. Some none at all.

The train from the near-fireball Cam seen at 12:34 a.m. CDT this Saturday morning. The five bright stars outlining the W of Cassiopeia are seen at right. Credit: Bob King

One of our readers aptly called it a ‘meteor sprinkle’. At first I thought we were in for the real deal when a near-fireball meteor blazed from the radiant to the right of Cassiopeia at 12:34 CDT. If this was the start of the shower, what a way to begin! Tinted orange like a fall maple and traveling very slowly, the meteor left a trail (called a train in meteor lingo) that lasted more than 20 minutes.

Not only did I have plenty of time to make a half dozen 2.5 minute time exposures of the expanding train but also got to view it in my telescope. The ghostly snake was definitely one of the coolest temporary nebulas I’ve ever seen.

Sequence of photos showing the expanding and fading train over the next 15 minutes. Credit: Bob King

Trains form when a meteoroid’s hypersonic velocity through the upper atmosphere ionizes or excites the atoms in the air along the object’s path. Soon enough the atoms take back their electrons, releasing light in the process. We see all this subatomic tit for tat as a bright streak that slowly fades from view. Trains expand and change shape depending on the vagaries of upper atmospheric winds. Absolutely fascinating to watch.

Like many of you I kept vigil for the next few hours, hoping for more Cams as the rising Milky Way became ever more spectacular. But the shower really never showered. I saw 10 total plus a few sporadic (random) meteors. Nearly all were slow-movers as predicted; the brighter ones were tinted yellow and orange.

Contrary to predictions, I saw more meteors before the expected 2 a.m. CDT (7 UT) peak. The hour from 2-3 a.m. proved anti-climactic. Before turning in for the night, one ‘farewell Cam’ flashed above the North Star just about the time the first robin burst into song.

Before starting my meteor watch I checked out the shower’s parent comet 209P/LINEAR. It’s a rare treat indeed to have the ‘mother ship’ nearby the same time its progeny dart to Earth. The comet had brightened a bit and even showed a tiny tail visible in 12-inch and larger telescopes.

A strange aurora-like trail drifts across the northwestern sky below the Big Dipper this morning. The starlike object at its center moved northward during the time exposure and looks like a streak inside the cloud. Credit: Bob King

While the Camelopardalids disappointed many I bet those who did go out got some mental refreshment just from sky gazing. I know I did … and a little bit more. Around 1 a.m. I looked over my shoulder toward Leo and the Big Dipper and nearly stumbled to the ground. What looked like a huge meteor train 15-20 degrees long drifted across a cloudless sky. In its center was a bright disk of light about the size of the moon and in the center of that a starlike object.

The trail, likely connected to the launch of a new Japanese mapping satellite expands and fades minutes later. You never know what you might see when you look up at night. Credit: Bob King

Quickly I reset the camera and got a couple shots off as the apparition drifted at slow-satellite speed to the north. The ray fanned out and lingered like a lone beam of northern lights for the next 10 minutes. Fortunately I wasn’t abducted. This morning I learned that the sight was connected to fuel dump after the launch of a Japanese mapping satellite.

I’ll update the blog later today or tomorrow with more information about the shower as it becomes available. And a little sleep wouldn’t hurt either.

Divers hope to raise biggest Chelyabinsk meteorite yet

Russian newspaper from last October showing divers rafting the 1,250-lb. hunk of Chelyabinsk meteorite to the shoreline of Chebakul Lake. The bold red headline reads: “Alien was raised from the bottom”. Credit: Bob King

Last October, divers fished out a 1.250 pound meteorite from Chebarkul Lake west of the city of Chelyabinsk. You’ll recall Chelyabinsk gave its name to the spectacular Russian fireball that rocked the city February 15 last year. The shock wave from the exploding meteoroid damaged buildings and shattered windows – flying glass injured some 1,600 people.

The largest piece of the meteorite pulled from Cherbarkul Lake is now on display in the Chelyabinsk Regional History Museum. Credit: Reuters

Thousands of small fragments pelted the snowy countryside near the city, and a big piece (or pieces) punched a neat hole some 20 feet (6-meters) through the ice of Chebarkul Lake. Russian scientists mapped the lake bottom soon after and found several “anomalies”. One of them proved to be the 1,250-pound behemoth, which divers retrieved after much effort.

It’s the largest fragment found to date, but that may change soon. Divers and scientists have found a dozen more anomalies, including one that indicates an object weighting several tons, according to Arkady Ovcharenko of the Geophysics Institute of the Ural branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Compilation of some of the best videos of the Chelyabinsk fireball

Last weekend, divers attempted to explore the new sites but high winds and turbid water put the kibosh on their efforts. This Saturday they used special probes to pinpoint two separate locations where the anomalies are clustered.

Vitaliy Khvatov, my contact in Russia, tells me that the search begins anew tomorrow to locate and retrieve the granddaddy meteorite and its siblings.

10 Sochi Olympians will win gold medals studded with Chelyabinsk meteorites

A worker creates a special souvenir Olympic medal with a fragment of the Chelyabinsk meteorite at the MAOK art workshop in Zlatoust, Russia. In addition to their gold medals, winners on Feb. 15 will each receive an additional gold and meteorite medal. Credit: RIA Novosti / Aleksandr Kondratuk

Athletes who win gold in Sochi Winter Olympics on February 15 will take away something even more valuable – a fragment of the Russian fireball that blew up over Chelyabinsk, Russia on the same day a year ago.

“We will hand out our medals to all the athletes who will win gold on that day, because both the meteorite strike and the Olympic Games are global events,” said Alexei Betekhtin, culture minister for the Chelyabinsk region.

The great fireball over Chelyabinsk, Russia captured on a dashcam on Feb. 15, 2013. Credit: Aleksandr Ivanov

The Chelyabinsk fall, the largest witnessed meteorite fall in over 100 years, exploded with 20-30 times the force of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima at an altitude of just 14.5 miles (23 km). Before it detonated into thousands of mostly gravel-sized meteorites and dust, it’s estimate the incoming meteoroid was as tall as a five-story building. The shock wave from the explosion shattered windows up and down the city, injuring nearly 1,500 people.

A beautiful, fluted 889g (1.96 lb.) fragment of Chelyabinsk. Cube is 1 cm (1/2″) across. Credit: Alexander of Chelya

The largest fragment, weighing 1,442 lbs. (654 kg), punched a hole in the ice of Lake Chebarkul. Divers raised it from the bottom muck on Oct. 16 last year and rafted it ashore, where scientists and excited onlookers watched as the massive space rock was hoisted onto a scale and promptly broke into three pieces. Even the scale broke from the weight.

A chip of Chelyabinsk will be affixed to each of the special medals; 10 will go to the gold medallists and another 40 will be sold to private collectors.

The lucky gold medal winners will received the cosmically-inspired medals on February 15 for the following events: men’s 1,500 meter speed skating, the women’s 1,000 meters and the men’s 1,500 short track, the women’s cross-country skiing relay, the men’s K-125 ski jump, the women’s super-giant slalom and men’s skeleton events.

An example of the gold medal that will be awarded to Olympians in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi which begins Feb. 7. Credit: Sochi 2014

“We are made of star stuff,” as the late Carl Sagan once said. While the special medals bear space rocks billions of years old, consider the gold itself. Once thought to have been forged in supernovae explosions, recent research has shown that most gold is created when neutron stars collide and merge.

Neutron stars are the remnant collapsed cores of supergiant stars after they explode as supernovae. Although most of the material in the collisions disappears down a newly-formed black hole, some of it’s ejected at high speed into space where neutrons crashing into neutrons build heavy elements like gold and platinum.

What about the silver medals and the copper used in the bronze? Those elements formed in the tremendous energy liberated in long-ago supernovae blasts. So while only a few lucky ones will get a meteorite medal, all winners will receive souvenirs from the most cataclysmic events in the known universe.

Two monster meteors flare and boom over Minnesota and Midwest

A spectacular fragmenting fireball described by some as as bright as the sun crosses the sky in this frame grab from a security camera video at 5:44 p.m. Dec. 26 in North Liberty, Iowa. Click to watch video.

The sky’s been rumbling with two bright fireball sightings in Minnesota across the Midwest this past week. On Dec. 26 a monster fireball that garnered more than 1,050 reports on the American Meteor Society’s website turned night into day across parts of Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. The fireball traveled from east to west and flashed into view in late twilight around 5:45 p.m.

Map showing the possible trajectory of the Dec. 26, 2013 fireball over Iowa. It was also seen from parts of Missouri, Kansas and other states.  Click for more info and updates. Credit: Mike Hankey / AMS

Although many people witnessed the the meteor there were no reports of sounds associated with the event. No so with the second fireball.

That one came out of nowhere (not strictly true – most originate from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter) around 10:30 p.m. Friday Dec. 27.

Of the 96 sightings so far reported, 29 people heard associated explosions and booms, likely signs that pieces of the original meteoroid survived the searing heat and pressure of atmospheric entry and landed as meteorites. Here’s how Justin D. of Brainerd, Minn. described it:

Map with green markers showing sightings of the Dec. 27 fireball. Although seen in neighboring states most reports were from Minnesota with explosive sounds heard in the north central part of the state.  The meteor traveled along an approximately south to north direction. Credit: LunarMeteoriteHunter / Google Earth

“While driving at night I witnessed the sky in north central Minnesota start flickering in the clouds as if there was lightening, and then the clouds started turning light blue, purple, pink, bright orange, and then from horizon to horizon went bright white and then reversed. Lasted about 4-6 seconds, I slowed down and rolled down my window and also focused on driving when an enormous boom followed a short time later. Reminded me of video from last years Russian meteor.”

Brightness estimates of this fireball run the gamut from the equivalent of a half moon to as brilliant as the sun. If you’d like to report sighting either (or any) fireball, please fill out an AMS report form.

A Missouri Highway Patrol trooper driving south of Sedalia, Missouri spotted the Dec. 26 fireball and activated his dash cam. Watching the video took me back to February’s huge fireball in Chelyabinsk, Russia. Click to see for yourself.

Marc Fries of Galactic Analytics, an organization which provides real-time information to on meteorite falls to scientists, hunters and meteorite collectors, reports that some of the Doppler weather radars in the upper Midwest picked up “returns” or reflections from possible falling meteorites from the Dec. 26 fireball.

Meanwhile the National Weather Service of Duluth, Minn. noted on its Facebook page that “KDLH Doppler radar has picked up on several objects that appear to be meteors, moving quickly from east-to-west across the sky” in the Brainerd Lakes area.

Unfortunately no TV or security camera videos have turned up for the Dec. 27 fireball. That’s one of the reasons I’m writing this – to seek more information. If you had a camera running that evening or know someone who did, please contact Mike Hankey (mike.hankey@gmail.com) at the AMS and Dirk Ross at the Latest Worldwide Meteor/Meteorite News. Video, especially from multiple angles, can help scientists determine the meteoroid’s orbit and where any fragments may have landed.

If meteorites fell, I’m envisioning black rocks on snow. Sounds like an easy hunt right? Except that any potential celestial stones would likely fall in deep snow now blanketing the woods and fields. We can hope that the Doppler information will help pinpoint a fall location that hunters can explore in the spring. Or maybe kids will scrounge up an unusual black rock when looking for eyes for their snowman.

Biggest Chelyabinsk meteorite caught on video crashing into Lake Chebarkul

Security camera video showing the impact of the largest piece of the Chelyabinsk meteorite striking Lake Chebarkul on Feb. 15, 2013. Credit: Nikolaj Mel’nikov

While it may not be much to look at, the simple fact that it was recorded at all makes it an incredibly rare and invaluable document of the great Russian meteorite fall.  You’ll recall that a house-sized meteoroid created a gigantic fireball over Chelyabinsk in Russia’s Ural Mountain region on Feb. 15 this year. It was probably the most photographed fireball in history thanks to all the dashcams that recorded the scene as people headed to work on that clear, cold morning.

Five Chelyabinsk meteorite fragments weighing a total of just 7 grams. Credit: Bob King

The meteoroid or tiny asteroid that entered Earth’s atmosphere that day was the size of a five-story building, but it broke up into thousands of much smaller pieces from the pressure and shock of hitting our protective blanket of air at over 41,000 mph (66,960 km/hr) or 60 times the speed of sound.

Frame grab from the video showing the movement of the ice and snow cloud created by the impact of the 1/2-ton meteorite. I still can’t be sure of seeing the meteorite itself but the cloud isn’t too hard to spot.

One of those pieces – the largest found to date – punched a 20-foot-wide (6-meter) hole in Lake Chebarkul about 43 miles southwest of Chelyabinsk. No one witnessed the moment of impact, but divers using special equipment discovered a half-ton meteorite buried in the muck in the bottom of the lake. The rock was finally fished out with great effort on Oct. 16 and taken ashore to be weighed. As it was lifted in


The 20-foot hole in the ice of Lake Chebarkul from the impact of a large hunk of Chelyabinsk meteorite. Credit: AP

Meteors leave brilliant trails that make a great spectacle; large ones like Chelyabinsk leave trails that linger for many minutes, providing countless opportunities for photos. But what about the stuff that survives the fiery plunge and makes it to the ground as meteorites?

Very rarely does anyone ever see a meteorite strike the ground. Video or still picture recordings are rarer still. That’s why it’s worth a minute to study the Chebarkul video to appreciate what you’re seeing. It recently popped up on Youtube as part of an online presentation on the Chelyabinsk airburst by Peter Jenniskens, noted meteorite expert and senior research scientist at the SETI Institute. You can watch Jenniskens’ full report HERE.

Biggest hunk of Chelyabinsk meteorite pulled from Lake Chebarkul

When you watch the video, make it “full-screen” and focus your attention on the area to the left of the small, rectangular ice fishing shack at the top middle of the image. In the slowed-down part of the footage you’ll see a cloud of ice and snow blow up and quickly drift to the right of the shack immediately after impact. Can you see it? If not, I grabbed the video frame showing the moment-by-moment sequence. Give this a look and watch the video again.

Fireball explodes over Columbus, Ohio – 2nd Midwestern light show in 2 days

Video of the fireball and its lingering trail over Ohio Friday night Sept. 27 caught on NASA’s All-Sky Cameras operated by Bill Cooke

Last night around 11:30 p.m EDT., sky watchers living in at least 14 states were treated to one of the most spectacular fireballs ever. It was the second major Midwestern fireball in two days. The first lit up skies across Missouri, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Ohio Thursday morning around 7:05 a.m. CDT.

Thursday early morning fireball across the Midwest

Within hours, the Thursday fireball quickly became the American Meteor Society’s 2nd most reported of all time with over 730 reports. Friday night’s fireball will likely overtake that with 450 reports reviewed and more than 400 pending.

Last night’s meteor blazed a trail almost directly over the city of Columbus, Ohio speeding through the upper atmosphere from east to west at more than 114,000 mph (227,000 km/hr). Observers describe a brilliant blue ball and yellow-orange tail; some heard sonic booms and concussions.

Ground track of Friday night’s fireball over Ohio. Credit: Bill Cooke, NASA

Based on its brightness, Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office estimates the meteoroid’s size at around 3 feet (1-meter) across. I’m crossing my fingers meteorites might eventually be found on the ground.

More on the fireballs HERE and HERE.

Report on a hand-sized meteorite that fell in Brazil on Monday

Far from Ohio, an actual meteorite landed with a loud noise in a homeowner’s front yard in Vicencia, Pernambuco, Brazil on Monday Sept. 23. The TV video footage shows the new arrival. To read the story in the garbled language of your choice (use Google Translate) and view much clearer photos, click HERE.

Huge fireball may have dropped meteorites in Tennessee

Aug. 28 fireball from one of NASA’s All-Sky cameras. It’s so bright at the end the meteor completely saturates the detector.

A fabulously bright fireball, now estimated at magnitude -16 or some 20 times brighter than the full moon, lit up the sky over the southeastern U.S. around 2:27 a.m. CDT Aug. 28. Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office reports that it’s the brightest event the office’s all-sky camera network has recorded since starting up five years ago.

Still frame from the video. Credit: NASA / ASGARD

Based on speed and brightness, the meteoroid’s original mass before it struck the atmosphere at 56,000 mph (90,000 km/hr) was around 240 lbs (109 kg) with a diameter rivaling that of a large exercise ball (3 feet or 1 meter).

The ground track shows where the fireball flew over and where it could have dropped meteorites. Credit: NASA / Google Maps

Given its size and the report of sonic booms during the fireball’s passing, it’s possible meteorites may have landed on and near the meteor’s ground track in the vicinity of Ocoee in far southeastern Tennessee. Judging from the track map, the area looks like mixed farms and forest. People are already out looking as I write. Let’s hope someone reports strange black rocks where none should be.

Spectacular Mexico meteor recalls Great Daylight Fireball of 1972

Video of the Aug. 21, 2013 Mexican daylight fireball. No sounds were heard by eyewitnesses

On the afternoon of Aug. 21 a fireball strikingly reminiscent of the Great Daylight Fireball of 1972  streaked across the sky near San Luis Potosi in central Mexico. Fortunately, a few people caught its passage with video cameras and cellphones.

Another video of the fireball taking from a moving car

Since there’ve been no reports of falling meteorites, it’s possible the space rock responsible for the spectacular display either skipped off the atmosphere and returned to outer space or fragmented and disintegrated.

A fireball similar to the Mexican one streaked over Wyoming on August 10, 1972 and came as close as 35 miles before skipping back into space. See video below. Credit and copyright: Antarctic Search for Meteorites program, Case Western Reserve University, James M. Baker

The meteor’s speed is amazing. My hunch is in the neighborhood of 40-50,000 mph (56-80,000 km/hr) based upon a similar daylight fireball that etched a chalky streak above the Grand Tetons in Wyoming on Aug. 10, 1972.  A tiny asteroid estimated at 10-32 feet (3-10 meters) in diameter entered Earth’s atmosphere over Utah at 50,000 mph that afternoon and traveled some 2,000 miles to a point over central Alberta, Canada. There it bid a fond farewell and returned to space. Easy come, easy go.

Video of the Great Fireball of 1972

Like a rock skipped on a pond, the truck-sized meteoroid briefly skimmed the rarified air 35 miles (57 km) above Earth surface and “landed” back in space to continue an orbit around the sun. To this day, the object known as US19720810, remains an Earth-crosser, though its orbit was changed by the close encounter. The burned and bruised space rock last passed near the planet in August 1997.

How do we know so much about an object that dashed by so briefly so long ago? Beginning in the early 1970s the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has kept an eye on missile launches and the like using classified satellites equipped with infrared sensors. These space based eyes also routinely record brilliant fireballs and exploding meteoroids in Earth’s atmosphere.

Path of the 1972 fireball adapted from an illustration by Donna Wolke

The 1972 atmospheric impact was the first fireball to be recorded with the new technology. Later analysis showed it was an Apollo-class asteroid first detected at an altitude of about 45 miles (73 km). It dipped as low as 33 miles (53 km) over the Idaho-Montana border before climbing back out of the atmosphere and into space. The entire passage lasted about 100 seconds.

Apollos are Earth-crossing asteroids. The February 15 Russian Chelyabinsk meteor fireball also belonged to the Apollo class. Astronomers have found about 240 of an estimated 2,000 of the largest Earth-grazers, those one kilometer or larger. The bad news (or good news if you like fireballs) is there are about 80 million Apollo-ettes buzzing around out there.

For the latest on the Mexico meteor including more videos, click over to Dirk Ross’s fab Latest Worldwide Meteor / Meteorite News.

** Bright fireball update: A major fireball brighter than the half moon blazed over the southeastern U.S. at about 2:27 a.m. CDT Aug. 28. Sonic booms were heard, and it’s likely meteorites from the breakup of the object reached the ground near Cleveland, Tennessee. Click HERE for photos, a video and updated info.