More booming fireballs

By Phil Plait | March 30, 2009 8:54 am
Artist drawing of an asteroid entering Earth’s atmosphere

So it sounds like (haha) another interplanetary interloper took it upon itself to explode in our atmosphere, this time over the East coast of the US. There has been a streak (haha) of these lately, and I’m getting emails asking if that’s unusual.

I do think it’s a bit unusual, but not crazy or apocalyptic, or even mildly worrisome. There’s a lot of junk out there in space, and it doesn’t take a big piece of detritus to make a brilliant fireball. Something the size of a grapefruit will light up the night sky, and anything bigger than a beach ball will make a tremendous display even during the day. The thing to remember here is that these objects enter our atmosphere moving at least 11km/sec (7 miles/sec), and that translates into a huge amount of energy. They can have speeds up to ten times that much, too, meaning they have 100 times the energy (energy goes as velocity squared), and that energy is converted into heat and light.

As a rock slams into the air at those speeds, it compresses the air in front of it tremendously, which is why it gets hot (it’s not friction per se; compressing a gas heats it up, and we’re talking major compression here). This pressure also flattens the meteoroid, and it can break up into little pieces, each of which heat up, which then break up, heat up, and then BANG! They release all their energy in an explosion. If that happens low enough in the atmosphere (though still many miles high), you can actually hear the non-Earth-shattering (sorry Marvin) but still quite loud kaboom.

That’s almost certainly what happened over Virginia yesterday. People say they saw a streak in the sky, indicating this was a meteor… though I have to tell you that specifics in eyewitness reports of meteors can be misleading. One person quoted in that article said it was definitely heading down, but in reality they can’t know that. As a meteor streaks across the sky, it looks like it’s heading down, toward the ground, but that’s just perspective. If one were to skip off our air like a rock skipping on water (and that does happen), from the ground it might still look like it was heading down even though it might be moving up, away from the ground.

Another person said it was low, but again that is probably not correct. Most likely it was low in the sky, because the person was far away and the curving Earth made it look low, like the rising Moon at first is low to the Horizon. The object coming in was probably 20 km off the ground or higher. The only way you could know for sure it was low is if it passed in front of clouds (which would be hard to tell if the fireball were really bright) or in front of trees… which would mean you’re in some small amount of trouble!

But what about the frequency of these things? There have been so many lately! Are we under attack?

No, I don’t think so. I think it’s a mix of coincidence — there may be a few more than usual, but it’s not like these things have published schedules; sometimes there are more and sometimes fewer — together with people being more aware of them because they’ve been in the news lately. It’s like buying a car and suddenly seeing it everywhere when you drive. We notice what we’re primed to notice.

So I’m not worried about these. Instead, I think it’s great! People are getting a first-hand taste of astronomy, and in a very exciting and memorable way! I hope people don’t get scared by this, and instead enjoy it. The Universe is talking to us, and people are starting to listen.

Comments (75)

  1. A gazillion to one chance that we may be destroyed (at least all life or me personally) by a big outer space rock is still a chance.

    Ask the people who won the powerball about how bad the odds are. :)

  2. Kevin

    It makes you wonder if that it’s not that there’s more things entering our atmosphere than there are people outside noticing them.

    I recall a few years ago when some news organization was interviewing a meteorologist about the “more than usual” number of tornadoes reported. The meteorologist said that “there are more people around who see them (or words to that effect). So perhaps we’re getting hit with the same amount of stuff, but there are more eyewitnesses.

    And you make a good point about meteors and the like being in the news lately. During the post-landing conference on Saturday, Bill Gerstenmaier – when asked about space debris around the ISS -said something about “there’s the same amount [of debris]. It’s just that there has been more news stories about it. We’ve always had contingency plans.”

    It’s almost like a paradox. Are there more objects entering our atmosphere, or are the objects just being observed more often?

  3. Brian Schlosser, Lurker

    I want to hear or see one of these things… that would be amazing!

    I’m actually kinda hoping we get a Tunguska II… over an unpopulated area, of course. Imagine the data we would be able to get if such an event happened today!

  4. Danny Dangerously

    I’m just curious, but if the seemingly increased frequency of meteors that be erathbound was indicative of and correlating with something, what kinds of hypothetical doom and gloom scenarios are we looking at here?

    The only thing i can think of using my terribly undereducated mind would be that these are all little bits and pieces that broke off and somehow are shooting way ahead of the big daddy on its way to finish us off. But that seems ridiculous and a bit impossible to me.

  5. I’m actually kinda hoping we get a Tunguska II…

    Wait, foolish earthling, wait…. buwah ha ha ha haaaaa!

  6. Jamie

    And I was certain that the frequency was a direct effect of the Universe wanting to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy with us.

  7. Cheyenne

    Maybe time to get more dough to NASA’s Near Earth Objects program? Kind of a sad $4.1 million per year right now.

    “Congress asked NASA in 2005 to increase its survey efforts, but then-agency director Michael Griffin refused to divert the estimated $1 billion needed for an overhaul away from other projects.”

    Stat and quote from Wired online today.

  8. Waits for the woo-woo 2012 Mayan Calendar Doom people to make claims

    Why aren’t any of these “event” class rocks? I ordered mine ages ago, and it still hasn’t been delivered. I should have ordered express, instead of ground.

  9. Savino

    Zapski Says:
    March 30th, 2009 at 9:35 am

    Waits for the woo-woo 2012 Mayan Calendar Doom people to make claims

    ITS A SIGN!!!! ITS A SIIIIIIIIIGN OF THE INCOMING DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!!!!!!

    those ppl scary me!

  10. Zach

    I’m in Virginia, outside of DC and it was cloudy most of the night. No booms heard on my end.

  11. Nothing big here. This is just FSM’s way of celebrating IYA2009.

  12. Gary Ansorge

    Woo-Woo!!!

    Maybe we’re just passing thru the remnants of an old comet. No definable nucleus, just lots of junk spread over a trillion km or so,,,

    I expect, since Armageddon (the movie) and Deep impact, a LOT more people are watching the sky and, finally, paying attention,,,

    Gary 7

  13. Gary Ansorge

    I’m still waiting for my solid platinum meteorite to drop in my yard,,,

    ,,,crickets,,,

    GAry 7

  14. Jim G

    Tacking onto Kevin’s observation, it is not the rate of sightings that has increased, but rather the rate at which they are being broadly reported. Once the topic becomes ‘newsworthy’ every news organization wants to jump on the bandwagon and post their own stories. This happened in Florida and the east coast in 2005 when we a flurry of shark attacks. It seems the sharks had a conscience, because after Hurricane Katrina hit we never heard of another attack that summer.

  15. Brian Schlosser, Lurker Says:
    I’m actually kinda hoping we get a Tunguska II… over an unpopulated area, of course.

    And/or Texas.

    ;)

    J/P=?

  16. WeirdFish

    With the laws of averages and medians and all sorts of other statistical things being what they are, I’d say anecdotally that the increased attention paid is a direct result of the Chicken Little subset of an increased population of observers. Usually prefaced by “ZOMG oh noes teh wrld iz doomed!!!1!ww!!!!1!1!!11!” The same people who begged the scientific community to abstain from the LHC experiments for fear of creating an uncontrollable supermassive black hole on Earth. Or something like that.

    ZOMG!!!!!!

  17. > Once the topic becomes ‘newsworthy’ every news organization wants to jump on the bandwagon and post their own stories

    Let’s see if I understand this … a “news organization” writing its own story about a topic, talking to people and reporting what they say, is bandwagon-jumping (boo!); a blog writing its own item about the topic, linking to those news reports without talking to anybody else, is citizen journalism (yea!).

    OK, got it.

  18. kingthorin

    Is “11km/sec (7 miles/sec)” just the effect of gravity?

  19. Man, this made me mad. I live in Virginia beach and I had to be told by my coworkers about this. They heard the bang but I missed it.

  20. “They heard the bang but I missed it.”

    The important thing about fireballs is that they miss you.

  21. Is it bad that with all of these fireballs popping up around the world I’ve been hoping for one over my city, and then I get my wish and don’t even hear the bang?

  22. I was lucky enough to see a meteor explode with my naked eyes a few years back during a 4-5am meteor shower. It was a bright white streak followed by a white flash about twice the diameter of the full moon (hard to estimate with no nearby objects, plus going on memory). It illuminated almost 1/4 of the sky! I didn’t realize meteors could outright explode, and at first I thought maybe it was a case of trapped gasses inside the rock heating up. But then I pondered the amount of pressure and heat involved just from pushing against the atmosphere and it didn’t seem unreasonable for it to shatter rock and vaporize the smaller fragments.

  23. Oh yeah, and it was apparently high enough in the sky that I didn’t hear a bang.

  24. TJ

    I don’t there are more of these; there are more people to report them and more interest.

    And there are more people *willing* to report them. In the past, the razzing about UFOs made most people leery about even mentioning anything like them.

    My friends and I saw a half-moon-sized green fireball in the mid-60s; it was not reported and not mentioned by anyone else in our town. It was the same with bollides: noone knew what they were or what to say.

  25. Icepick

    I live outside of Baltimore and may have heard what you describe. I was sitting up reading in bed just before 11pm eastern and heard a booming that I kept trying to attribute to thunder. Without much success. It was a loud thrum that repeated a couple times.

    I did not go outside to look, so had no other observations.

    If the time correlates to other observations, I’d say i heard it.

  26. Quiet Desperation

    Me want some boom!

    Can the Left Coast get some booming love? C’mon, Universe!

  27. ammused

    ya…ok…obviously u are interested since u actually looked this up, i live in the virginia beach area and ya i saw a bright flash of light…then seconds later came a big thundering sound that shook the place a bit, i blew it off thinking we got a little thunder and lightning till i heard about it this morning at work, but now they are saying its part of a russion rocket that took guys to the space station. Maybe they are getting the lottery together to see who will be going to the safe cave?!?!

  28. ammused

    er russian****

  29. Dan I.

    Phil;

    According to an article I saw (I think it was on CNN) they’re pretty sure the explosion over VA Beach and Norfolk (I saw it in Williamsburg too) was the second stage of the Soyuz

  30. Copernic

    Eyewitness – Say, what’s that bright light and noise I keep observing with increased frequency.

    BA – Nothing to worry about….by the way, wanna buy a book about the Earth’s impending destruction?

    I smell a manipulative PR campaign.

    J

  31. Timothy from Boulder

    CNN is reporting what ammused posted earlier, that the likely cause is the booster from last Thursday’s launch of a Soyuz to the ISS.

  32. Jake

    Living in Va Beach, and being an avid reader, I’ve been waiting for this article. While watching TV last night I hear the noise that this event made, and several other friends who experienced it as well. At the time I passed it off as thunder, though checking the radar saw no likely hood of that. The thing that bugs me the most about this right now is this article:

    http://www.space.com/news/090330-rocket-debris.html

    which I’m having a hard time believing.

    Any more comments on this incident Phil?

  33. Joe Edmonds

    I worked in Yellowstone NP in the early ’70s. I remember hearing of a meteor that bounced off the athmosphere over the Tetons. There were some home movies of the track. Would this have made a sonic boom? If it had hit so close to the Yellowstone hot spot would I be here today to ask this question?

  34. Texas2Step

    I don’t know guys. This concerns me a lot. Just in the last month we had two objects pass by before we even knew they were there. Then the fireball of Texas a few months ago. Not to mention all the ones that have happened over the entire world. We also have (what appears to be) weekly shuttle missions. What the heck are they doing up there anyways? Is this space station to ferry our leaders away until the worst has passed?

    This concerns me deeply…

    The naysayers probably have a seat already in the cave of cowards that they are building around the world. We know NOW what we can stop and what we can’t stop correct? That makes me believe the governments around the world will never tell us if we’re doomed. Why scare everyone to early.

    They will never tell US until its to late. We will be left to fend for ourselves.

  35. Texas2Step

    Also,

    I believe the collision between our satellite and the Russian satellite was a cover story for increased meteor activity. These guys will never EVER tell us until its absolutely to late.

    Kiss your butts goodbye.

  36. Texas2Step

    Lastly,

    Google search “fireballs in sky”. You will be AMAZED at all the recent sightings throughout the WORLD.

  37. Ha! Bwah-ha! Buwah-ha ha ha haaaaaaa!

    No, seriously….Texas? Is it the water, or what?

  38. George
  39. chesscanoe
  40. Quiet Desperation

    These guys will never EVER tell us until its absolutely to late.

    Yeah, they should tell us sooner so people can run around screaming and panicking before it’s too late. Seriously, if it’s an Extinction Level Event, what good would the information do anyone?

    Wasn’t there an episode of Night Gallery with a kid who went on TV every night and made perfect predictions? And then one night he predicts the dawning of a perfect new world, but what he really foresaw was the Sun going nova (yeah, yeah, I know). He figured, why bum everyone out? Let humanity have one last happy day.

  41. I live in Maryland, and may have heard this. Unfortunately, at the time it just sounded like odd thunder. I was already in bed and didn’t get up to investigate.

    I’ll be curious to see if any info comes in from someone with a skycam, and want to see more data before I think it was the Soyuz booster.

  42. Flying sardines

    @ Quiet Desperation :

    Seriously, if it’s an Extinction Level Event, what good would the information do anyone?

    It’d give us the chance to get seriously drunk beforehand. That might be good. ;-)

    Perhaps a dumb qu but could this (appraent) increase in meteors/~rites have something to do with the satellite crash / satellite shoot-down debris?

  43. MadScientist

    There just aren’t enough – I want a meteor storm! What’s one little flash and pop every few days?

  44. Flying sardines

    Correction :

    (appraent) = (apparent) obvious but still. Typos. grr…

  45. Flying sardines

    I second MadScientist on the meteor storm desire – does having a few recent bright comets, eg. Comet McNaught & Lulin raise our chances of that any?

  46. llewelly


    Alien Invaders Still Having trouble With Meteor Cannon.

    A spacecraft entered Sol system a few months ago, and began firing its primary meteor cannon at planet Earth. However, its attacks so far have been either inconsequential, or complete misses. Officials point to alien error as the cause.

    “The meteor cannon’s protective cover was not properly secured when we entered hyperspace to jump from Procyon to Sol.” Captain Kodos admitted. Experts believe the high dark energy levels in hyperspace damaged the insufficiently protected meteor cannon.

    The cannon has proved difficult to fix. “It’s been an extremely frustrating few months.” Kodos continued, “We worry Earthlings aren’t taking us seriously. But we expect to have the problem fixed soon.” When the cannon is fixed, “Earth will be destroyed.” , Captain Kodos claims.

  47. Kevin

    I just read this on spaceweather…

    News reports that a Russian rocket fell over the US mid-Atlantic coast on Sunday evening, March 29th, are probably incorrect. A spent Russian rocket booster did reenter Earth’s atmosphere on March 29th, but apparently not over the USA. According to data published by US Strategic Command, the reentry occurred near Taiwan (24° N, 125° E) at 11:57 p.m. EDT. So what were those lights in the sky over Maryland and Virginia two hours earlier? Eyewitness accounts of the Atlantic Coast fireball are consistent with a meteoritic bolide–a random asteroid hitting Earth’s atmosphere and exploding in flight.

  48. Andrew

    Universe Today also says it was the Soyuz second stage, quoting people from the U.S. Naval Observatory and U.S. Space Surveillance Network, but the comments refer to spaceweather.com, which says that the Soyuz stage reentered over Taiwan. Can these two be reconciled?

    http://www.universetoday.com/2009/03/30/another-meteor-no-russian-rocket/
    http://www.spaceweather.com/

  49. Mark

    Wow…. Texas2Step and DannyDangerously, I dunno what to think of that. I mean, I guess on one side I can get a bit worried considering the fact that it may be something leading up to a much bigger object.. (but at the same time… wouldn’t the big one be first and the smaller remanants be there after? Just sayin.)

    Or, on the other side of the coin….. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAH Wow…

  50. Mark

    Also, about how the goverments wouldn’t tell anyone if there was an ELE… who’s going to stop all the amateur and independent telescopes out there? That’s a WHOLE mess of people to stop. *Shrug* Maybe I’m just one of those naive naysayers who already has a spot in the Coward Caves.

  51. Leonard Cohen

    In this article Phil wrote:

    “But what about the frequency of these things? THERE HAVE BEEN SO MANY LATELY! Are we under attack? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s a mix of COINCIDENCE — there may be a few more than usual… sometimes there are more and sometimes fewer — together with people being more aware of them because they’ve been in the news lately.”

    I BET TO DIFFER! If you peruse the “Video Meteor Database” on the International Meteor Organization’s website (http://www.imonet.org/database.html) you find a rather astonishing phenomenon:

    Look at the “overall” column for the years 2004-2008 respectively. The total number of recorded meteor events increases as follows: 25,209 < 40,785 < 69,809 < 75,070 < 92,311. Remember, this is from a fixed number of cameras around the world observing the sky on virtually every night throughout the year.

    This is a rather ASTONISHING INCREASE to say the least and it is certainly NOT attributable to 'greater awareness.' SOMETHING IS GOING ON WHICH NEEDS EXPLAINING.

    Given the government's rather clumsy initial attempts to convince the public that the latest meteor events were merely "space junk" (remember that they tried it as well regarding both the Tesxas and Kentucky fireballs in February)…well…one can only wonder if they know something and just aren't telling.

  52. The Soyuz explanation (or blaming any other reentry) turned out to be incorrect, so it was yet another meteor event, like the one in Texas recently.

  53. I also live in Virginia not far from DC and sadly I didn’t see or hear it either. I miss all the good astronomical stuff :-(

  54. 2012 oooohhhh im waitinggggg

  55. Texas2Step

    Any questions naysayers?

    It was not a rocket. Oh yeah…another one in Canada?

    Come on guys!!!

    This is not natural to have this many hit our atmosphere. Yes…it does happen but not this often. Look at the sheer odds of this happening now. Our galaxy is way to big for comets to hit our atmosphere at this rate in such a short time.

    The caves of cowards are being built around the world. The outerspace Cave of Cowards is almost complete. IE…the International Space Station.

    They just need to tell us now. I’m sure private investors will do anything and everything to help save this planet.

  56. Texas2Step

    Oh yeah…the naysayers on here probably have a seat in the Cave for Cowards. Paid zombies to spread disinformation.

    Its been going on since WWI.

    These cowards know something….Why no media covering this event? Especially after the Texas event. Let’s not forget the one that blew up over Africa a few weeks ago. So Texas, Kentucky, Canada, Virginia and Africa…all just meer co-inky-dink?

    The media mogals are a instrument to control government disinformation. Tell me I’m wrong about that.

  57. Texas2Step

    Oh yeah…there was no collision between satellites like they told us. Those things were hit by meteors. The space shuttle has almost been hit several times in the last few months.

  58. Texas2Step

    Why won’t NASA or the President put all our fears to rest then? 30 minutes of their time doesn’t seem unreasonable does it. Tell us there is nothing to worry about. Have a news conference and say there is absolutely nothing to worry about.

    But the naysayers will say, “why should they”. There is nothing to worry about right. I will tell you this right now naysayers. I will do everything in my power to ruin any chance of you entering that Cave for Cowards. I will seek it out and blow that rat hole up.

  59. According to some guy at the U.S. Naval Observatory, that fireball was the remnant of a Russian rocket booster. the Soyuz rocket had been launched on Thursday to deliver a couple of people to the ISS.

  60. Texas2Step

    Mark Says:
    March 31st, 2009 at 7:22 am
    Also, about how the goverments wouldn’t tell anyone if there was an ELE… who’s going to stop all the amateur and independent telescopes out there? That’s a WHOLE mess of people to stop. *Shrug* Maybe I’m just one of those naive naysayers who already has a spot in the Coward Cave
    ———————————————————————

    Like the two that wizzed by us that they missed. Amateur astronomers call the NASA hotline FIRST. NASA then tells them its top secret and that they will get a seat in the Cave for Cowards when the chit hits the fan. This seat is good for them and their families. That’s plenty of reason to keep it quiet don’t you think?

  61. Jessica

    Ah, the mX “newspaper” (I use that term loosely) yesterday mentioned this – just said there was a fireball seen in the sky and concluded with something like “weather experts have no explanation for it”. Well of course not, they should be asking the astronomers! >_<

  62. Texas2Step

    “Then the fourth angel poured out his bowl on the Sun,

    and power was given to him to scorch men with fire.

    And men (mankind … men and women)

    were scorched with great heat,

    and they blasphemed the Name of God

    who has power over these plagues;

    and they did not repent and give Him glory.”

    (Revelation 16:8-9)

    Solar flare that is predicted to happen?

    “And great hail from heaven fell upon men, (“Mankind”.. men and women)

    each hailstone about the weight of a talent.

    (A “talent” = 85 – 114 pounds!!)

    Men blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail,

    since that plague was exceedingly great.”

    (Revelation 16:21)

    Meteors maybe?

    “And the stars of heaven fell to the Earth,

    as a fig tree drops its late figs

    when it is shaken by a mighty wind.

    Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up,

    and every mountain and island was moved out of its place

    And the kings of the Earth, the great men, the rich men,

    the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man,

    hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains”

    (Revelation 6:13-15)

    Cave for the Cowards maybe?

  63. Seriously, if it’s an Extinction Level Event, what good would the information do anyone?

    I’d have time to stage a little come-to-Gawd meetin’ with some fundies I know. Of course, the Gawd in question would be Nyarlathotep…

  64. Mark

    Wow Texas2Step… seriously…. GLP is the place for you.

  65. Mark

    Although I do gotta say, it’s kinda cool and renegade at the idea that IF there were some Caves for Cowards, Texas would be all like “Fergit that…” and be like a defender of the people. ;) Modern Day Superman. ;)

  66. Texas2Step

    Mark Says:
    March 31st, 2009 at 11:10 pm
    Although I do gotta say, it’s kinda cool and renegade at the idea that IF there were some Caves for Cowards, Texas would be all like “Fergit that…” and be like a defender of the people. Modern Day Superman.
    =========================================================================

    LOL!!! I get a little over dramatic at times. However, who are THEY to decide which children live and which one’s don’t? Why are my children expendable and theirs are not? So every man, woman and I’m sad to say child trying to hide in some cave will be my focus.

    I say NO government run caves period. Unless we all can fit in there.

    Any G-Men listening here me well!!! You better pack some body bags in those caves.

  67. Texas2Step

    PS…I don’t believe our current President and his wife would hide. He might but the kids in there. I do believe Bush would be in there already.

  68. Texas2Step

    Hidden Planet Discovered in Old Hubble Data
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29993465/

    Wake up America!!! These cowards know what’s going on! This planet is 130 light years away. That’s right around the corner in astronomical terms. The universe is 15 billion years old. 130 light years is nothing compared to 130 light years. That’s just the stuff that they tell us about.

    Listen…if they just found this out then what else don’t they know? Or do know?

  69. Texas2Step

    A Martian orbiter has spotted seasonal footprints of spring creeping up on the red planet.

    Seasonal polar caps formed from carbon dioxide have begun vaporizing or changing directly from solid ice to gas, and have kicked off a chain of events detected by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)
    =========================================================================

    Amatuer sleuths have known that for YEARS. Why admit it now?

    Changes in seasonal patterns suggest the possibility of life. Yet, NASA holds that information close to the vest. WHY?

    Why don’t we know more about the dark side of the MOON? We can see tracks on Mars from the mars rovers but we don’t even know what’s on the dark side of the moon?

    Why can’t we put an orbiter in the Moons atmosphere and detail EXACTLY what’s on the dark side?

    We will suffer the same fate as Mars did. The moon was used as a base station to colonized Earth by Martians. They know this but refuse to do anything construtive to prevent it.

  70. Texas2Step

    Nothing compared to 15 billion years btw.

  71. Texas2Step

    PS…You guys should be happy to know that the Government contacted me today. It appears that someone complained about threats that I made.

    Why is the government concerned about something that doesn’t exist?

    Keep thinking you are safe. While they hide you will be left to fend off the bombardment of meteors.

  72. Mark

    Um… yeah… Sorry, I thought you had something and now I think entirely different. Sorry.

  73. Matt

    So, 3 years later I see this post. I believe a saw this fireball in Northern VA. VERY COOL looking green effect and seemed about the size of a school bus.

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