It's not every day you see a meteor streaking across the sky. For some Torontonians, the sight of a green fireball on Sunday night was a surprisingly big event. Some were scared. Some were enchanted. Some braced for impact and some called the cops. However, as Constable Laurie Perks of the York Regional Police curtly puts it, space debris "is not a police matter. It's an outer-space matter."

The meteor, of a particularly bright type known as a bolide or fireball, prompted many locals to flights of fancy. "I wasn't sure if I was seeing stuff," admits Mike Mazeika, who saw the meteor from a ninth-floor apartment in North York. "It was so big and it lasted so long." He describes the green- and orange-tinged fireball as being "bigger than a plane," maybe "the size of a building" and adds that the sight of it literally froze him in his tracks.

In fact, it's estimated Sunday's meteor was sized somewhere between a toaster and a golf ball. Because our eye has nothing to scale them to, bolides always seem to be much closer and bigger than they are. Their brightness and their speed -- "25 to 70 times the speed of a rifle bullet," says Terence Dickinson, editor of SkyNews astronomy magazine -- add to that impression.

"Everyone has a knee-jerk reaction of some kind," Mr. Dickinson continues. "Some people see it for what it is -- a piece of material left over from the formation of the solar system, more than four billion years old. But others think it's an airplane crashing down or a ballistic missile." Still others think they're having a quasi-religious experience or seeing a UFO.

Meteors have long been mistaken for things they are not. During a massive meteor shower in 1833, many people assumed the end of the world was at hand. A flaring green bolide in 1966 piqued Cold War paranoia. The Tagish Lake meteor, which fell in Yukon in 2000, coincided with the U.S. conducting a weapons defence test; people thought it was a missile that had misfired.

"Most of us learn 'science,' in quote marks, from movies and television," Mr. Dickinson says. When people jump to conclusions, imagining the meteor crashing into a nearby field -- or into the Granite Club -- he says, "they're just attaching information they know to what they see."

"What you don't understand immediately conjures up fear," adds Paul Delaney, professor of physics and astronomy at York University. Given what we know -- or don't know -- about space, "It's very understandable to say, yes, we're being visited."

UFO buff Mike Bird, who claims to have seen four extraterrestrial craft in his life, is confident Sunday's event was no visitation. "If it had stopped and changed direction," he says, "that would be another story." (He's not so sure about the Meteor Train of 1913, however.)

"The sky automatically adds wonder to our environment," Mr. Dickinson says. "People historically have looked at the sky and seen heaven or gods. There's been wondering at the sky ever since humans have been humans."

"It's one of the most amazing things I've seen in my life," Mr. Mazeika says. "I feel really lucky."