Booming is business

By Phil Plait | March 12, 2009 7:41 am

Something seems to be shaking up America. Literally.

Last Saturday, people in New York reported hearing a loud boom, like a sonic boom. Houses shook, and a woman reported seeing a yellow streak across the sky.

The news is reporting it as a potential meteor (they actually say "meteorite", but that’s what they’re called only after they reach the ground). That’s certainly possible; if it got low enough it could create a sonic boom. Still, it’s not completely certain. Meteors are pretty common; if you go outside in a dark site for an hour you’re likely to see several. So the woman’s report may be coincidence; anything big enough to make a sonic boom would have been a lot more dramatic than "…a yellow light streaking across the sky." But they didn’t directly quote the woman so I don’t know just how bright this was.

The article does say Doppler radar shows something that looks like it could have been a meteor, though, so this is an interesting story. They also said another boom was heard in a nearby area Monday morning as well.

And that’s not all! In southern California last Wednesday there were also reports of a loud boom. Apparently there were no earthquakes reported, and there were no military planes going supersonic. This time there are no reports of meteors that I have found.

Are we under attack? I’ve been getting email from people asking if this activity is unusual, but I don’t think it is. I think that it’s happening all the time, but people are noticing it more due to the way we get information. The internet is almost instantaneous now, with email and social networks like Twitter able to spread news in literally seconds and minutes.

Plus, still and video cameras are a lot more common, so we see more footage of meteors as well, with bright fireballs like the one over Texas recently grabbing headlines. So it’s not necessarily that it’s happening more often, but that we’re seeing and hearing about it more.

So if you hear a loud noise some night, or witness a bright fireball, don’t panic! Grab your camera instead.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, DeathfromtheSkies!

Comments (38)

  1. Charles Boyer

    Bets anyone?

    How long until some “credible researcher” starts claiming that aliens are among us and the ever-sensationalist media gives him/her plenty of airtime to espouse their nonsense?

    I say by 8pm Friday. That’s two cycles of cable news and of course Inside Edition.

  2. Todd W.

    Interesting. I heard some noises last night intermittently throughout the night that sounded like a metal sheet warping or cars driving over one of those big metal plates covering construction holes in the road. This was near Boston. I had the curtains drawn, though, so I couldn’t see anything. It was also a very windy night, so the noises may have had something to do with that, rather than road noises, as there are no metal plates in the road near my house, and I don’t think there are any metal sheds. It also is almost certainly unrelated to the account above, but an interesting coincidence nonetheless.

  3. Brian Schlosser, Lurker

    My brother reminded me a few week ago of a weird boom we heard/felt as kids. This was maybe 1988? 86? Somewhere in there. It was like a sonic boom, but no planes nearby… It rattled the ground and buildings.

    It was very odd, but probably WAS a sonic boom…

  4. Daniel J. Andrews

    With all those video, surveillance and digital cameras around we’ve received some good pics of bright meteors in the brief seconds they appear, so it is only a matter of time till we get some good spacecraft pictures which hang around for quite a while. Waiting…..waiting……still waiting……

    Re: Sonic booms. Had two last week–Jets training around the NORAD base here in the frozen north.

  5. ND

    Todd W.

    Where near Boston? There are a ton of those around here.

    I’m in Concord MA.

  6. Technically speaking, the body is called a “meteoroid” whilst still in flight. The term “meteor” refers to the luminescence surrounding it.

  7. amstrad

    Maybe it’s an elaborate promotion for Cloverfield 2.

  8. Monkey



  9. Okay, peoploids, the gig is up. I admit it, I am K’n’G’t, Royal Emissary and Toady in Chief of your new Alien Overlords. The booms you hear are the braking maneuvers of our hyperfleet.

    The press conference was going to be held next week, but since you are all so perceptive and nosy…

    BTW, why haven’t you been listening to our designated spokesapien, B’l’y M’e’I’r?

    Foolish monkey men…

  10. J. D. Mack

    Phil, this blog post reminds me of an e-mail that I was going to send to you, but I might as well comment here instead.

    Let’s say I am outside videotaping a soccer game, or whatever. Suddenly, a bright streak zooms across the sky and I just happen to have my camera pointed in its direction. What do I do? Who should I contact first? A news organization? A university? NASA? What is the protocol?

  11. Monkey

    PS – on a tangent here:

    Phil….your book is making me late for work. I start with my coffee and cereal in the morning (NOT your fave brand, although!) and I end up immersed in the deathly bouts of the cosmos late into the morning….drag myself to the shower….contemplate death……dry off….grab your book to double check a few stats….fumble to work….dodging anything that looks like it might be of cosmic origin (the joke is in the details on that one….Carl?).


    Stop writing good books…..


  12. You missed the second boom in New York on Monday:

    Another mystery boom wakes people in region

    By Jorge Fitz-Gibbon and Danielle DeSouza
    The Journal News ‚ÄĘ March 10, 2009

    A second loud boom may have rattled windows in parts of Rockland County yesterday – and its origin remains as mysterious as the explosive noise that blew through southern Westchester County over the weekend.

    “It was about 5:15 a.m., and it woke up the whole house,” said Nanuet resident Keith Wallenstein. “The house was shaking. It sounded like someone had flown an F-16 over the house.”

  13. Todd W.


    Just next to Cambridge.

  14. yohanz

    funny cuz about a month ago we had about two “earthquakes” here in jersey….im nineteen and have lived here my whole life and this is the first time ive even heard about it here

  15. Is all the space junk currently orbiting Earth finally coming home to roost?

  16. llewelly

    Let’s say I am outside videotaping a soccer game, or whatever. Suddenly, a bright streak zooms across the sky and I just happen to have my camera pointed in its direction. What do I do? Who should I contact first? A news organization? A university? NASA? What is the protocol?

    Contact Phil first! It’s vital that the rest of us see it on twitter as soon as possible.

  17. alfaniner

    I’m often reminded of the PR guy in Close Encounters saying “We’ve never been able to record a car crash and get it on the 11 o’clock news” in response to why people have never recorded a decent UFO. Perhaps a reasonable skeptical view at the time (it was 1977 after all), but now you can see recorded car crashes nearly every night on those exploitative shows. There is yet to be any convincing (alien) UFO footage.

  18. IVAN3MAN

    I once heard a loud rumble, followed by pressure wave that caused the window curtains to bellow out slightly into the room of my house, early on the morning of Sunday 11 December 2005. It was the result of the 2005 Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal fire explosion — which was ~40 km away from London, UK, where I reside! — and was the biggest of its kind in peacetime Europe.

    In that case, “booming [was] business”!

  19. Couldn’t all these booms be something as mundane as thunder? I’ve never personally heard a sonic boom, so I have nothing to compare with.

  20. Report here in So Cal was that there were ordinance excercises at Camp Pendleton. Low ceiling, high humidity, sound carries better?

  21. Bill

    For more on this story, we take you now to our correspondant in Grover’s Mill…

  22. Daffy

    My wife and I heard the booms here in California (there were several, about an hour apart); they rattled the windows. We still have not seen any explanation offered anywhere.

  23. Mike

    There were TWO booms in California. One on the South Coast you mentioned. Another in the Monterey Bay Area the same day. Local news media have reported quite a few more details. Like, the Santa Cruz sonic boom track was northbound and far less than hypersonic (which seems to suggest it wasn’t a meteor). Everything is consistent with a supersonic aircraft, except that the military won’t admit anyone was flying around the ADIZ. In other words, it was secret and someone screwed up.

  24. Gonzo

    It does seem like there are more metors being reported. The internet didn’t just come out this year though. So what gives? Did people just start looking up?

  25. EdZ

    While it in no way explains booms experienced by distributed groups of people, if you’re in a city or urban area and hear a rumbling boom, look fora plane that has just appeared over a building. If it is flying relatively low, or it is generally quiet, the sudden onset of noise is rather surprising.

  26. If faced with a situation like this, is it better to grab the camera before or after I finish soiling my shorts?

  27. Arthur Maruyama

    I shall point out that BA’s linked story is to a Santa Cruz newspaper, and that Santa Cruz is normally considered part of northern California (though at the southern end of greater SF Bay Area)–thus there were reports from both northern and southern coastal California.

  28. justcorbly

    It’s Thor, practicing.

    Or thunder.

    Or a military pilot breaking the rules.

    Or a commercial airliner. How far are the people reporting the sound from an airport? Most people have never heard a sonic boom, so they might readily misconstrue the sound of an airliner really pushing it with a sonic boom. (Aren’t two booms usually associated with a sonic boom?) I live on the final approach to an airport that’s about 5 miles away. Given the right weather conditions, an airliner accelerating and turning over my place at night can shake the timbers and wake the dead.

  29. @ Mike:

    Everything is consistent with a supersonic aircraft, except that the military won’t admit anyone was flying around the ADIZ. In other words, it was secret and someone screwed up.

    Two days prior, there were several unusual sorties either to or from Edwards AFB near Lancaster. We could hear one or more aircraft quite clearly as they made a run just north of the San Gabriel mountains. That usually only happens when the AF is up to something, either at Vandenburg or elsewhere.

    I’d still like to know why I haven’t heard from cousin Carl in Grover’s Mill, tho…

    (props to Bill for the reference!)

  30. HAL's Dave

    Vogon Constructor fleet, maybe?

  31. We get loud booms near where I live when the National Guard sets off a few tactical M80s. ūüėČ

  32. Angela

    It is totally the government/military.
    Of course, I will now be kidnapped and brainwashed.

  33. My house just shook and I heard a boom. (4:00 a.m. Talking Rock, GA)

  34. It is totally the government/military.
    Of course, I will now be kidnapped and brainwashed.
    Oops…forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.

  35. This sounds just like a boom I experienced (along with many other San Diegans) in 2006. There still has been no official explanation, although according to this article it originated in a military testing area:

  36. This is not booming.

  37. James Morasco

    I live in Las Vegas and a few months ago I witnessed a meteor streak across the sky and explode. A few seconds later I heard the boom. It’s happened many times and I only notice it because my eyes are constantly drawn to the night sky and I wait for the sound, if any. Most of the time it’s so faint that you would HAVE to be listening to hear it. I can see how the louder ones can be shocking to someone, and we all know how big a story can get. People tend to exaggerate these things to near Biblical proportions, hence the apocalyptic fears. Keep up the great work Phil.


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