Wed, 18 Nov 2009 00:04 UTC
A fast moving meteor lit up the night skies over most of Utah just after midnight Wednesday. Moments later, the phones lit up at KSL as people across the state called to tell us what they saw and ask what it was.
Utahns are still talking Wednesday about what scientists are calling a "remarkable midnight fireball." The source of all the excitement was basically a rock, falling from space. When a meteor enters the atmosphere, it gives off a lot of heat and light.
Folks at the Clark Planetarium say this rock was big--between the size of a microwave and washer-dryer unit.
At exactly 12:07, people from all over the western United States watched as the bolide meteor crashed into Earth's atmosphere. In some areas, the flash of light was so bright it caused light sensor street lamps to shut off.
Clark Planetarium Director Seth Jarvis said the stony meteorite was probably around the size of an oven, traveling 80,000 miles an hour when it hit our atmosphere and went splat like a bug on a windshield. He said it happened 100 miles up in the air, so despite the brightness, Utah was never in any danger.
"These collisions can do damage, but they are extremely rare, and literally once in a century do you observe something that's actually doing damage," he said.
Witness Andy Bailey said, "Oh, it lit up the whole sky, like almost brighter than the day. It was bright."
Don White was in Wyoming and told KSL Newsradio for a moment he suspected a nuclear strike. "With something that brilliant and that fast, it was like, whoa, did we just get hit or something? It would have been some bigger noise I guess if a nuclear device had gone off," he said.
"I've seen falling stars before, but nothing like that before," said witness James Albin.
We have reports that the light show was picked up as far away as Tucson, Santa Fe, Butte and Frisco Peak near Milford in southwest Utah.
The University of Utah has an observatory at 9,500 feet on Frisco Peak which captured images of the fireball itself.
Everyone who saw it has a once-in-a-lifetime story.
Resident Jon Olschewski said, "I noticed to the left something streaking through the sky. It was this meteor that was exploding. It was breaking off into at least five big chunks."
Many surveillance systems captured the spectacular blast of light.
Roy Merrell also saw the light. He said, "There was this flash in the room, the room basically just lit up."
Others recorded a sequence of shadows as fantastic as any Hollywood studio could create.
Patrick Wiggins,NASA Solar System Ambassador to Utah, said, "To realize it was up so high, people are thinking it's right close, but the thing was up so high it was seen between L.A., Las Vegas and, of course, all over Utah. I mean, this thing was way up there."
Scientists believe it was not part of the famous Leonid debris stream, instead a sporadic asteroid, a midnight fireball, which exploded in the atmosphere with an energy equivalent of up to one kiloton of TNT.
"It was almost, I could say, like celestial," Olschewski said. "You know what I mean. One of those kind of moments like 'oh my gosh,' like 'I'm not ready' kind of thing."
In Tooele County, residents reported that they felt that moment when the meteor shattered. Wiggins said it took about 5 minutes for the sonic boom, but said he's not surprised people felt it.
"Most meteors, you don't hear them, but this one was close enough and big enough that yeah, you definitely heard the thing. It was exciting," he said.
Wiggins said, from his calculations, the pieces of the meteor likely fell over Dugway. He said it's possible meteorites could also be found elsewhere. He said it can't hurt to look around your yard; if you happen to find one it could be worth thousands of dollars.
KSL also received video clips of the meteor from Utah residents. Click on the video links to the right to watch the clips.
Story compiled with information from Alex Cabrero, Shara Park, Mary Richards and Randall Jeppesen.