Midwest megameteor makes media madness

By Phil Plait | November 22, 2009 8:00 am

[For those complaining about my title, I said "midwest" because the meteor was seen as far east as Colorado, which sits on the west/midwest border, and, duh, I needed a word that started with "M".]

By now you’ve probably heard of the extremely bright fireball over Utah last Wednesday, proving once again that really cool stuff happens when I’m on travel and can’t write about it. Worse, it was seen from Denver, which means I might’ve had a shot at seeing it myself.


Anyway, this meteor was so bright it overexposed security cameras, turned night into day, and cast obvious shadows on the ground. This video shows several different views of it:


The coolest thing about these videos is, to me, the way the shadows of objects move rapidly around as the meteor flashes across the sky. I describe this very thing in the opening vignette of the asteroid impact chapter of my book Death from the Skies! The video is pretty much exactly as I imagined it would be. Yikes.

Of course, not everyone thinks this was just a chunk of rock burning up harmlessly in our atmosphere. Because, after all, why assume it was a natural event that occurs quite often, when you can add layers of nonsense and conspiracy to it? Fark alerted me to the idea that this was actually a nuclear missile shot down over the US, despite the video, pictures, and eyewitness accounts completely contradicting the idea that this was anything other than a meteor. But for some people, facts won’t get in the way of a good story!

Anyway, while spectacular, the Earth is probably subjected to meteors like this several times a year. As I have said before, now that we have security cameras and phones with video, we’ll be seeing more and more of videos like this, which is a good thing: it’ll make people more aware of the sky. I’m all for that!

MORE ABOUT: fireball, meteor

Comments (54)

Links to this Post

  1. Venture Free » Nuclear Strike Averted | November 22, 2009
  2. Nuclear Strike Averted « When A Leaf Turns | November 22, 2009

    You wrote a book?


  2. dre

    I like how in the third segment the light-sensor-operated security light turns off because the fireball is so bright. Ha! Tricked it!

  3. Er, Utah is the Midwest?

  4. Flip

    The Delorean got up to 88 miles per hour.

  5. It is the first sign to the end of the world, only 3 years away.

  6. So how big do you think the object was that created that much light?

    Does anyone know if there was an impact?

  7. Cindy

    So, has a meteorite from it been found?

    I have to agree with Jamie, Utah is the Midwest? From an East Coast perspective, Utah is West or Southwest (depending on what part of Utah). Maybe from a California perspective Utah is Midwest. 😉

  8. Benjamin Franz

    Utah is generally considered part of the ‘West’ (sometimes the ‘Mountain West’).

    The ‘Midwest’ generally considered to be Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and that area of the country ; something like a thousand miles east of Utah.

  9. Maybe it was just *headed* towards the Midwest. It probably didn’t stay over Utah for very long. 😉

    I hope someone manages to find the meteorite! That would be cool.

  10. Brett G

    That is cool. I also love how there is a conspiracy behind everything.

  11. For some people, facts won’t get in the way of a good alliteration.

  12. Maybe from a California perspective Utah is Midwest

    From a California perspective, Utah is Flyover.

  13. John M

    Okay, I went to that conspiracy website to read the “article”. I feel much stupider after reading that…

  14. Was this a Leonid? The peak was early Wednesday morning. I was out that Wednesday night with some students and a couple telescopes, and happened to see a meteor streak through the eyepiece while observing Jupiter. I didn’t happen to note how the image was rotated so I’m not sure if mine was a Leonid, but it’s certainly possible.

  15. I dunno, Phil. I read that article you linked to, and it seems legit to me. I mean, it quotes “Russian Space Forces” as saying this was a thwarted nuclear attack. It doesn’t get more legitimate than that as far as I’m concerned. Would you dare argue with the “Russian Space Forces”?

  16. t-storm

    1 kiloton isn’t much. It might have destroyed the airport and the aircraft, but Denver would have been fine. Hiroshima was like 15 kilotons.
    A kiloton is nothing to sneeze at, but why would the Russian Space Forces go to all that trouble for so little?

    It was probably just an angel.

  17. David

    Saying Utah is the midwest is like saying vaccines cause autism. :)

    Hey Phil – why don’t more observatories have cameras watching the whole night sky to catch stuff like this? You’d think it wouldn’t cost too much to have about 12-16 cameras all running a 12 hour loop of video.

  18. CraigBer

    Since when was Utah in the midwest?

  19. Levi in NY

    For some people, facts won’t get in the way of a good alliterative title!

    Though there are M-words you could have used without calling Utah part of the Midwest. You could have called it a “Mountain-menacing megameteor” or a “Mormon-mystifying megameteor”.

  20. Zyggy

    SO, I live in Utah, but I missed this. Dammit.

    I heard folks talking about it at work the next day, and the reports were pretty spectacular.

    I’m still annoyed that I missed it…Dammit.

  21. Benji

    Warning for 2012! REPENT!

    Lol… 😉

  22. JP

    I say Utah is midwest to west and what we now call the Midwest is really MidEast U.S.? Isn’t it?

  23. Douglas Troy

    Alright Phil,

    Since the Utahians (Utahii?) are calling you out on your title, here’s some suggestions:

    Monumental Mega-Meteor Makes Media Madness
    Mystifying Meteor Mega-Flash Motivates Media Monkey Madness

    or go with something like …

    Meteor Flashes Entire State of Utah. Residents Shocked.

  24. Darren Garrison

    #17 David

    “why don’t more observatories have cameras watching the whole night sky to catch stuff like this?”

    There are some. Here’s one:


  25. Some years ago the Pacific Northwest had a meteor shower and I was watching when some Much Bigger meteors flew by. It looked like something from War of the Worlds. I was scared but fascinated and called my husband to the window. He saw one go by and I could see he was shocked at the size. He went straight to bed LoL. We live in a scary cosmos.

  26. Keith (the first one)

    That’s quite cool. I’m sure in future we’ll catch more of these on camera.

    As for that link to the conspiracy site, I think that tops the timecube as the most insane website I’ve ever come across.

  27. Crashedfiesta

    I saw a similar, but much smaller, meteor a couple of weeks ago. I was putting out the rubbish at about 6:30am just as dawn was starting to break and a huge streak of light went across the sky just as I looked up. Made my day. :)

    It was in the Worcestershire area of the UK and was to the North of me (I have the Malvern hills as a useful direction indicator).

  28. NGC3314

    Further to David’s comment – for example, Chris Peterson’s Cloudbait Observatory runs several all-sky cameras in Colorado. His web page shows video from four of them, all far enough south that they only got the scattered light from the explosion flash either at or over the horizon. He does an interesting trick where apparently full-time-resolution video is only saved when and where something happens. All-sky cameras have come and gone an come at observatories, but the best way to catch meteor as more than streaks doesn’t do any other users much good (cloud monitoring, extinction estimates from stars, and so on). This seems to be one of the areas where some amateurs are carrying a lot of the load.

  29. I JUST covered this exact video over at my website (http://www.BrightIncite.com). I saw one of these by luck back in 2000 (maybe 2001) in the Outer Banks, NC. It was amazing, but mostly scary at the time. To say that the sky lit up is an understatement. I was standing on a beach with no artificial light. When the meteor hit the atmosphere, for a few seconds, I could see down the beach as if it were the middle of the day. I vividly remember looking down the shoreline where I thought my small group of friends was a lone, and seeing small pockets of other people who were previously hidden by the darkness standing at the edge of the ocean pointing into the sky over the Atlantic.

  30. Rob Matson

    Hi Phil,

    I’ve been working the trajectory of this fall starting about an hour after it happened, thanks to a post to the Minor Planet Mailing List (MPML) by NASA Solar System Ambassador Patrick Wiggins. To answer a few questions asked earlier in the blog:

    1. The meteor was not a Leonid. The radiant of the Leonids was only about 7 degrees above the horizon at the time of the fall (~12:07:20 am MST). The bolide entry angle was close to 45 degrees from the NNE heading SSW.

    2. Meteorites have not yet been recovered, but they are almost certainly on the ground. The inaccessibility of the fall area (Dugway Proving Grounds) by civilians is the only reason that meteorites have not already been found.

    3. The scientific value of a fresh meteorite fall should certainly trump any arguments against recovering it. If Army personnel cannot be spared a day to go search for and recover specimens, then perhaps some NASA/JPL experts can be given temporary access to the area to do so.

    –Rob Matson

  31. JupiterIsBig

    My brain was shutting down before I got to the article … I barely made it back here with my sanity.
    Is it just a website to try to make money from advertising ? Does someone actually believe what they wrote ?

  32. Zucchi

    Great video! As it happens, I saw my first fireball Saturday night (Nov. 21), in the Macon, GA area. Right about midnight, to the northwest. Only lasted about two seconds, but was an impressive white blob.

  33. Blaine

    Live in Utah, saw it, scared the daylights out of us. AWESOME!

  34. Well, duh, how about “mountain west,” which is how meteorologists and others typically refer to it? That is, however, the best video clip I’ve seen of the event. Any word on whether they’ve tightened up the object’s trajectory, and gone looking for pieces?

  35. Zucchi

    Do large meteors show up on NORAD radar?

  36. 15. MichaelL Says:
    I dunno, Phil. I read that article you linked to, and it seems legit to me. I mean, it quotes “Russian Space Forces” as saying this was a thwarted nuclear attack. It doesn’t get more legitimate than that as far as I’m concerned. Would you dare argue with the “Russian Space Forces”?

    They’re at least as legitimate as the Paris Business Review.



  37. Don Gisselbeck

    I once saw the moving shadow phenomenon with a high full moon in a very hazy sky. I couldn’t see a trail when I looked up.

  38. @ Levi in New York:

    “Mormon-mystifying megameteor”

    Haw haw!!!!

    Scare ’em right out of their shiny magic underpants.

  39. jearley

    Zucchi asked about meteors on NORAD radar.
    Yes, they do show up, and are quite obvious. I am sure that they tracked this. You can ‘hear’ meteors on a regular radio and some daytime showers have been monitored this way.

  40. Crudely Wrott

    With chunks likes this flying about, most of them undetected, some are worried about ICBMs? Wassamatta with them? Don’t they know how complicated it is to launch a missile with a nuclear warhead? Do they think a couple of dudes on their day off from missile command could do it? Do the actually not know how flippin’ hard that would be to do?

    And do they actually think that someone has figured out a way to benefit from such an action? Do they not know how small a target the Earth is? Do they not conceive the actual size of space outside of their tiny world views?

    With great reluctance I must admit that these questions can all be answered in the affirmative, the evidence being persuasive and confirming.

    They’re out there , folks.

  41. Mandarb

    On Saturday that happened as well. Sky turned blue, and then red. It was quite cloudy, so didn’t see the meteor. First thought it was lightning, but when I thought about it seemed obvious that it wasn’t. This is down in South Africa.

    Here’s a article: http://www.news24.com/Content/SciTech/News/1132/3524fd46b3ff4ca284a6560a11fc9d20/22-11-2009-10-52/UFO_paints_sky_white,_blue,_red

  42. Jason

    I saw it out my kitchen window in Salt Lake. Absolutely incredible!

  43. Just me

    This is obviously fake, because in Armageddon there were always ominous precursors to the asteroid fragments that entered the atmosphere: the ground shook, animals yelped, stuff fell off of shelves, giving everyone time to look up as the meteor loudly WOOOOOOSHED over them. This so-called “meteor” gave no preludinous warning of its coming, and made no sound as it flew over. Definitely fake.

    But seriously, folks.
    The most memorable meteor shower I ever saw was many, many years ago near the Grand Canyon. There were easily 50-100 per minute, and some were big enough to leave brief glowing trails behind. None bright enough to light up the night sky, but still, truly incredible.

  44. Jim Garrison

    if you watch the first part of the video you can clearly see there was a second meteor. it went back and to the left.

  45. harshpotatoes

    to be fair anything east of washington should be considered the midwest. nevada, idaho. i’m looking at you too.

    i’m still waiting to see a good meteor shower, let alone a good meteor like this. every big shower has been hidden by clouds for as long as i can remember. but i guess that’s seattle for you.

  46. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    [For those complaining about my title, I said “midwest” because the meteor was seen as far east as Colorado, which sits on the west/midwest border, and, duh, I needed a word that started with “M”.]

    Mountain State?

  47. I want those Flashing Lights.

    Seriously, that is a wicked video. We still don’t know the power that nature holds. Be still oh meteor-one, be still.

  48. Chanelle

    @45 I know you were being sarcastic, but while there were no precursors like you mentioned, several people did report feeling the ground shake, and one person said the vibration caused their door to open. Not in advance of the meteor, but rather as an effect of its passing. And for the person who asked about the size, the reports were saying that it was possibly about the size of an oven when it entered the atmosphere and maybe the size of a baseball by the time it hit the ground, if it did.

    @23 Duh! Don’t try to figure it out, just spell it “Mormonville”

    I was surprised that BA didn’t have anything about this last week, since it was visible in his hometown, but didn’t realize he was still traveling. Makes more sense now.

  49. April

    I live in the greater Salt Lake metropolitain area and this freaked me out enough that I woke up the entire house, expecting trespassers. The worst part is I knew about the Leonid shower that night and didn’t put the information together until the following day.

    I was awake and saw a very bright light on my bedroom wall. I assumed the neighbor’s motion detector had been triggered and someone was cutting through backyards in the area. Not long after the flash, we were able to actually hear a noise (most likely vibrations on our sliding glass door). We were certain someone had been through the yard and stalked around looking for an intruder. We watched the neighbor’s lights turn on as they too tried to figure out what the hell was going on.

    I just felt like a moron the next day as I recounted my sleepless night to my boss, and was informed I was stalking a bollide meteor.

  50. Great video. Love that!
    @16: “…probably just an angel” No doubt.
    2012: Is anyone tired of the hype yet? native American friend of mine recently sent me text of a speech by a modern-day native Mayan trained in the shaman tradition who knows how to read the calendar(s), of which there are 17. This one’s timing is calculated by the movement of the Pleides. The date simply syncs up with one full revolution of the solar system around our galaxy’s center, representing 26,000 years. The word is that all the prophecies of all the tribes on this planet will be fulfilled, and there will be a transformation. The end is for those who want it. The rest of us will live on.

  51. Vincent

    How about:
    Mountain west megameteor makes media madness

  52. Zucchi

    hanasazi — that’s about 225 *million* years for the solar system to orbit around the galactic center, not 26,000 years.


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