ST. GEORGE- Scientists don’t officially say it was a meteor, but it was a meteor.
A ball of fire lit up the sky across the Cedar City area in Mesquite at 7:53 p.m. MDT Monday night. Captured on some doorbell cameras, the meteor could be seen brightening and apparently breaking up enough that many social media outlets said they believed the meteorite remnants must have landed in Milford.
But the sightings weren’t limited to southern Utah. On social media, residents of Peoria, Arizona, Las Vegas and Rancho Mirage, California were also certain that an alien coin had landed in their neighborhood.
Phil Plait, known as “The Bad Astronomer” for his books and media appearances on the Discovery and National Geographic channels, told St. George News that it’s unlikely any part of the meteoroid ever made landfall and was roughly the size of one of the basketballs fired by the Utah Jazz on Monday night.
“I personally can’t gauge the size of the meteoroid from the videos or reports, but judging by the brightness, it wasn’t too big… less than a meter in diameter, that’s for sure. Basketball can be about right,” Plait said. “At this size, it would be rare for meteors to hit the ground. Most likely, it completely burned down.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the American Meteor Society had received 125 individual reports from Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California of a meteor sighting on its fireball report page. The northernmost report came from Nona, Utah, just south of Provo; the southernmost was Tucson, Arizona; and the westernmost was Calabasas, California in the Los Angeles area, where it was reported to have a “green glow” and “lots of flame”.
Local reports ranged from “very large and bright enough to light up the area outside” in Beaver to “having an audible noise” in Dixie and Sunset in St. George to one person in Mesquite wondering if it was of fireworks.
Hurricane resident Sandy Lynne captured it on her home’s doorbell camera.
“I wish I could have seen it with our own eyes,” Lynne said.
In the video, the meteor can be seen from the porch, growing in brightness as it descends and lights up the street like lightning. It reaches its maximum brightness before appearing to break.
And Plait said the breakup was exactly what happened.
“Several videos show its brightness suddenly increasing multiple times for a short split second,” said Plait, who wrote about the process called “pancaking.” “These are likely due to the main piece breaking due to the pressure it puts on our atmosphere. This flattens the incoming rock.
“It causes it to break into smaller pieces, and the sudden increase in surface area due to the fact that there are now multiple pieces causes it to clear up very quickly. If you watch the video of the Chelyabinsk asteroid of 2013you can see the same thing even though this one was much smaller.
While the annual Orionid meteor shower peaked this weekend, Plait doesn’t believe Monday night’s meteor is related to this shower, which is made up of debris from Halley’s Comet.
“I doubt it’s an Orionid because they tend to be small,” Plait said, noting that Orionids are usually no bigger than the size of a pebble.
And there’s no reason to panic that the fireballs are about to become alarmingly prolific.
“There are roughly 100 tons of meteor debris burning in our atmosphere every day,” Plait said.
American Meteor Society astronomer Robert Lunsford, author of the book “Meteors and How to Observe Them,” told St. George News that the fireball occurred too early to be an Orionid, but that she may have been part of another meteor stream.
“It was more likely a member of the Taurid meteor shower, which is expected to produce an increased number of fireballs over the next two weeks,” Lunsford said. “Some call it a ‘swarm’ but it’s actually a larger than normal concentration of particles from Comet Encke that has been disrupted by Jupiter’s gravity.
“This disturbance causes this concentration to come closer to Earth every three or seven years. The last Tauride swarm dates back to 2015.”
Lunsford added that people who thought they saw the meteor hitting the ground were literally seeing things.
“Reaching earth is just an optical illusion because these fireballs decay while they’re still several miles high in the atmosphere,” he said. “Being made of cometary material, they are fragile and do not survive being immersed in the atmosphere.”
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