Bright fireball lights up northern California

By Phil Plait | October 18, 2012 9:03 am

On Wednesday evening, October 17, around 19:45 local time, a bright meteor blazed across the sky of northern California. Some reports say it was as bright as the full Moon, and there were reports of loud booming noises as well!

Wes Jones of Belmont got this spectacular shot using a fish-eye camera (posted on the NASA/Ames CAMS site):

For comparison, to the upper left of center is Altair, and to the lower right is Vega, two of the brightest stars in the sky! Clearly, this was an intense meteor.

The best video I’ve seen so far is from the Lick Observatory, though it’s out of focus because the camera was newly installed and hadn’t been adjusted yet:

As the meteor flares (possibly due to the main body of it fragmenting) you can see the dome of the telescope on the left in silhouette. Another video from the observatory only shows it for a moment, but you can see it fragmenting.

Local TV station ABC7 has spectacular pictures, but I haven’t been able to confirm them yet.

A lot of folks are speculating that this is part of the Orionid shower, which peaks this weekend. The direction and timing for the meteor are wrong for that though, so it’s certainly not an Orionid. Meteor showers generally don’t make fireball like this. Also, showers are pretty frequent, so any random bright meteor has a decent chance of occurring during one just by coincidence. So be wary of claims like that.

The noise reports appear to be real, though. Some people say their houses were shaken like in an earthquake. This means the meteoroid (the solid part ramming through our atmosphere) was of a decent size (like a beachball, maybe? Hard to say) and got low enough in the atmosphere to have the sonic boom carried by air. Most small meteoroids burn up 100 km or so above the Earth, so no noise is heard. The noise coupled with the obvious fragmentation mean that there may be meteorites that hit the ground from this event. It’s not yet clear if it fell over the ocean or not, so I’ll try to keep up with the news and update this post as I find out more.

If you live in the US and ever do see a fireball, it’s a good idea to note the direction it’s traveling and your location as best you can, and then report it to the American Meteor Society. If you get pictures or videos, send them to me! I’d love to post them if I can.

Picture credit: Wes Jones and the NASA/Ames CAMS site.

Related Posts:

VERY bright and spectacular meteor seen over northern UK! (and this update)
Video of the daylight California fireball
Best video of Soyuz rocket burning up so far
… and a real meteor over Georgia


Comments (25)

  1. This showed up on my facebook feed last night. I’m skeptical the radar returns show a meteor, it seems to be moving to slow. From the video the return signature moves about 12 miles in 4 frames (3 steps). The meteorologist who posted this on facebook indicated that the time incraments for radar time lapse tend to be about 6 minutes between frames so, that would put the speed at ~40 miles per hour. Which seems about slow for a meteor. See for yourself.

  2. Eric

    Wonder if a meteorite made it down

  3. COD

    I saw it in Virginia, at about 7:05 ET. It looked like one of my neighbors had fired off a firework.

  4. Darren

    Speculation from the local news is that there a likely impact point is in the hills near Martinez and hunters should be out in force this morning.

  5. Charlie

    We saw it last night too from Mountain View.. it was definitely fragmenting, especially near the end. It looked like it broke up completely (as opposed to streaking out of view). Didn’t hear any noises, but it was pretty damn bright, and looked very much like the pics you linked to at ABC7.

    We were at the corner of Shoreline and Plymouth, and from our perspective it was traveling across the sky south to north, and was to the west of our position. I.e., we noticed it when it was south west of us, and it broke up north west of us.

    Pretty amazing!

  6. jearley

    COD- the direction of travel was wrong for your location, so the one that you saw was a different meteor. Any pictures or more info on the one that you saw?

  7. Sy

    Don’t larger asteriods/meteors/comets etc etc .. have smaller rubble flying with them.

    Could this possible have anything to do with Orionids Showers, also what about size & composition.
    So many unanswered we need to know .. ahhh

  8. Jan

    could it be a chunk of halleys comet? or would that have to come from the direction, of the orionids too? this weekend is about the right time for halley debris.

  9. JB

    The pictures from the channel 7 link (taken from Santa Rosa) look exactly like what I saw from Menlo Park, but inverted. Could the meteor actually have been between the two points, or are the pictures upside-down or mirrored?

    From how long it took for me to hear the rumble (and how quiet it was), I would have guessed it was further north than Santa Rosa.

  10. dMONI

    I live in Anderson Ca and was at the football field. I saw TWO separate Fireballs. No one is reporting that there were 2 but I SAW THEM. One was to the north and about 15 mins later one came out of the southwest. I dont know why no one will address this. Anyone else see 2?

  11. VinceRN

    Saw one like this in Seattle several years ago. The coolest thing about it was that most of the other folks I knew that saw it were a lot more interested in the science of such things afterward. People that usually talked, or thought, very little about science were suddenly looking up meteors online, discussing them, learning stuff.

  12. Mitch

    I just want to report that I live in Oakland, CA and was inside watching a movie and I tweeted at 7:45pm “What was that, my whole house just shook”

    That was the moment it passed over my house. The shaking was from the sonic boom I presume.

    I have lived here for a while and I have seen two large meteors break up in the last 2 years by happen-chance. This one I missed, however I heard it and felt it.

  13. KC

    This very likely had nothing to do with the Orionids. This was at 7:40 pm – the radiant of the shower was not even above the horizon.

  14. Grand Lunar

    Pretty cool, Phil.

    And good to that you posted the link to report fireballs, as I just saw one tonight!

    The thing was in the west and left a trail. It later broke apart. The thing was red in color.

    Coolest thing I saw so far!

  15. KmanInSanFran

    …a friend of mine in St. Louis called me to discuss the Cardinals/Giants series (actually, he just wanted to gloat)…I stepped into my backyard since the telephone reception wasn’t clear…from the direction of South Bay/SFO I saw a brilliant white light streaking across the sky heading northwest-ish; and it had a tail that looked like a 4th of July sparkler, while the center of the event turned white-green-and-purple…it took a few seconds for it to register in my mind that what I was witnessing was a meteor (and not your typical streak-across-the-sky-and-gone-before-you-could-make-a-wish-kinda-thing)…apparently, per my friend, all I said, repetitively, without recollection, was, “what the **** is that?!….what the **** is that?!….damn that is so ******* amazing!!!.” I must have said it loud enough because many of my neighbors started to look outside their windows (it’s been wonderfully warm here – so, all the windows are up)….I probably sounded like the rainbow guy when he made that viral video – exclaiming the joy he felt while looking at a rainbow….

    …from my perspective, in Noe Valley, it seemed like the meteor would have met its end over Marin, the Bay, or the Pacific Ocean…from other reports that I have read, it seems that it made it much further north….what I am really interested in knowing is: what was the altitude (for me it seemed like it was at airplane height)?; what was the length of the tail?; and how large was the object?

    If anyone can answer those questions, then I would greatly appreciate the information. To sum up, I’ve seen many astronomical events, and this certainly ranks at the very top (or, dead even with the northern lights that I saw by chance in Alaska). PS – I also heard the boom/rumble and felt an “earth-shake”, but I did not connect it with the meteor until I read the reports…..uhhh, and my gloating friend in St. Louis was envvvvvviiiiiiiiiooooussssssss:)…..

  16. Derek

    I saw this when I was at work. The sky lit up really bright for a quick moment then was gone. I thought it was a rocket . I am in Eureka, California

  17. Something happened last night over the UK:

    Source: BBC News

    ‘Meteor’ prompts Devon and Cornwall tremor reports
    People across Devon and Cornwall have inundated police with calls saying they had experienced an earth tremor.

    Officers from the region said they received reports of people hearing loud bangs and buildings shaking from about 16:15 BST on Thursday.

    Police staff in Devon’s Newton Abbot station also said floors shook.

    The British Geological Survey said it had no evidence of a tremor, but added it could have been a sonic boom from a meteor falling to earth.

    ‘Spectacular’ noise source

    Police said the calls were “fairly widespread”, coming in from Harrowbarrow in south east Cornwall, as well as the South Hams and Teignbridge areas of south Devon, the Tamar Valley and Dartmoor.

    Insp Gareth Twigg, of Devon and Cornwall Police, said: “The first calls reported sounds like an explosion. Further calls also described noise and then objects shaking.

    Full article:

  18. John

    I heard it! I live right down the street from Wes Jones, in San Mateo. My wife said it sounded like a gun shot, I said, no, it’s a sonic boom, although it was hard to imagine any plane making one here, I figured it must be something else and I’d never find out, like usually happens when I hear a mysterious noise. Too bad I wasn’t outside to see it.

  19. CJ Nerd

    There may have been another one in the SW of the UK yesterday:

  20. MdB

    Something hit southwest UK at 16:15 BST.

    Maybe a different lump off the same block?

  21. Jon Hanford

    According to a preliminary trajectory calculated by NASA researcher Peter Jenniskens there is a good chance that that the fireball dropped fragments just north of San Francisco:

    The meteoroid entered the atmosphere with a speed of 14 km/s at an altitude of 85 km and was last seen at an altitude of 39 km. Jenniskens notes on that “39 km is not the end point, but the final bit captured by the San Mateo video camera.” Further study of video records should result in a more accurate info on the specifics of this event.

  22. Jon Hanford

    Great news! The CAMS website is now reporting that a 63 gram meteorite from the event has been recovered in Novato California (see my link above for pictures, details).

  23. My wife and I saw it from Garberville in Northern California, disappearing over the hills to the southeast. We were there on vacation and had just gotten to our hotel room after 14 hours of travel from Houston. We both just happened to look over in that direction through our window at the exact right time and saw it flare and fragment. What incredible luck!! I still can’t believe it.


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