Meteor sighting: A bird, a plane — no, it’s a fireball in the sky
February 9, 2019
People with their eyes to the sky around 6 p.m. Thursday were in for a cosmic treat.
A bright orb, glowing with the intensity of a full moon, shot across the cloudless expanse of stars, leaving a smoky trail in its path.
Chris Powers was driving to his home near Stagecoach when he spotted what astronomers call a fireball sailing over the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said in a message. “I was mesmerized for the rest of the night.”
Officials from the American Meteor Society, a nonprofit group that tracks solar objects, had received 60 reports about the fireball by Friday. Most sightings came from the Front Range, but people from Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming also reported sightings.
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Using the location and times of those reports, officials were able to calculate a three-dimensional trajectory of the celestial projectile.
According to that data, the fireball traveled east to west above Montrose and ended its flight southwest of that city.
Not to be confused with a college kid’s go-to liquor, a fireball is simply a very bright meteor. Most fireballs have about the same luminosity as the planet Venus, according to the American Meteor Society’s website.
Powers said the fireball he saw looked like a shooting star but much brighter. It reminded him of the tail of a firework.
Paul McCudden, astronomy professor at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs, did not get to see last night’s fireball. But, in his years studying and observing the stars, he has seen his fair share.
“It’s not too rare, actually,” he said of such sightings.
The American Meteor Society has calculated that several thousand meteors of fireball magnitude fall into the Earth’s atmosphere each day.
Getting the chance to see that debris can prove difficult.
The vast majority of those meteors, about two-thirds, fall over the open ocean. Another quarter plummet across uninhabited areas.
“Those that occur at night also stand little chance of being detected due to the relatively low numbers of persons out to notice them,” the society explains on its website.
Still others fall during the day, when the sky is too bright to spot many objects in space except for the sun, moon and a few stars.
Astronomers use an ancient Greek measuring system, more than 2,000 years old, to determine the brightness of celestial objects, like fireballs, according to McCudden.
“The larger the number, the dimmer the star,” McCudden said.
The system is based on the star Vega, whose brightness was historically denoted with a brightness magnitude of 0. Astronomers now put it at around 0.14.
One of the brightest objects in the solar system, the sun, has a magnitude of -26.7 on this scale. The dimmest objects that people can see with the naked eye measure in at 5 or 6.
“Anything above that, you need a telescope to see,” McCudden said.
Fireballs typically have a magnitude of -4, but McCudden estimates Thursday’s event was much brighter. Based on images, he compared its magnitude to a full moon, which has a brightness of -12.6.
He said that objects that bright could send meteorites, shrapnel from a meteor, crashing to the Earth’s surface. He had a message for anyone near Montrose who may find a fragment:
“Don’t turn it into jewelry,” he said. “Turn it into a scientist.”
Meteorites, some of the original pieces of the solar system, offer astronomers like McCudden a historical look at the universe and information about how it formed.
“We call them fossils of the solar system,” he said. “If you find a meteorite, you’re holding something that’s probably 4.5 billion years old.”
That’s something to get fired up about.
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