Washington meteor
© American Meteor Society, adapted by CWG
Heat map showing where eyewitnesses spotted the first of two fireballs Monday evening, as well as the estimated path of this fireball.
If you looked up at the right times Monday evening, you may have seen something out of this world. Not one, but two, bright fireballs lit up the skies Monday evening, widely visible from D.C. to New York.

The first occurred about 4:56 p.m., 10 minutes after sunset in Washington. It illuminated the twilight eastern horizon, burning vibrant shades of green, blue and white as it exploded in our atmosphere. It lasted about five to seven seconds as it fell, fragmenting into a number of smaller shards like a doomed firework.

The fireball "looked like an airplane going super fast but then disappeared about as quickly as I saw it," commented Samantha Tungul, a Capital Weather Gang Facebook follower who witnessed the event in Prince William County.

Other eyewitnesses described it as "like a stray firework," "green and slow moving," and "an incredibly bright blue white streaking ball."

A fireball is a meteor that is larger than normal.

The American Meteor Society received four dozen reports of the spectacle, from Richmond to Providence, R.I. The group synthesized each account, drawing upon information about the meteor's apparent motion, color, bearing and speed. They concluded that the meteor likely entered Earth's atmosphere off the southeastern shores of the Delmarva Peninsula, south of Ocean City, before either disintegrating and burning up or crashing into the water somewhere 100 miles to the east-northeast.

One lucky observer in Baileys Crossroads recorded the meteor as being a minus-10 for "apparent magnitude." Astronomers rank how bright an object shines in our sky on a logarithmic scale. The more negative the number, the brighter the object. A minus-10 would mean the meteor was nearly as bright as a full moon! Others farther north claim it was even brighter.


Before anyone could catch their breath, yet another fireball took the plunge into our skies, this time along Maryland's northwestern border with Pennsylvania. This one was seen by fewer people around 6:42 p.m., lasting three or four seconds as it burned even more brilliantly than its predecessor. Preliminary data suggest that this one did not break up but, rather, was small enough to burn up fully.

Eyewitness Joe Schumer watched it from Annandale, Va., in the northern sky, and said the streak was "clearly visible even with streetlights."

Neither meteor was accompanied by any sound. Noises tend to result only if a meteor explodes.

In the case of the first meteor, there probably was sound reminiscent of a sonic boom, but it was too far over the open Atlantic to be heard from land. It was probably larger, as well, perhaps the size of a basketball or greater before it broke up. Radar returns indicate the meteor's explosion may have taken place about 35 miles east of Maryland's Assateague Island, but nearby precipitation echoes at the time make it impossible to be entirely sure.

Could this be an early treat from the Geminid meteor shower? Certainly. It is set to peak Thursday night into Friday, when more than 100 shooting stars per hour will streak overhead beneath dark, moonless skies. The Geminids are known for their fireballs - any meteor that penetrates deep into our atmosphere and is brighter than Venus.

NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office detected 33 fireballs over the eastern two-thirds of the Lower 48 Monday night. By triangulating their trajectories with their network of "all-sky cameras," the organization can calculate a meteor's track and velocity. Of the 33, six have since been initially classified as Geminids, and 25 remain undetermined.

Other fireballs were reported in Texas, Montana, Washington, California and Maine. And, in the video below, we see a stunning fireball that jetted through the sky over Mexico on Monday night, near the erupting Popcatepetl volcano.



Why the sudden outburst in the heavens? There is a chance that Earth may be entering a narrow but unusually dense pocket of debris left in the wake of 3200 Phaethon, the asteroid responsible for igniting December's annual meteor shower. That means this year could feature a particularly active and spectacular show.

Capital Weather Gang's Jason Samenow contributed to this report.