Great Balls of Fire!

A little after midnight Wednesday morning, about 21 hours ago as I write this, I was at my favorite astrophotography spot in Emery County, when I thought a vehicle was driving around the desert behind me. Headlights were shining through the brush, I thought, someone driving on some distant road in higher country. In retrospect, I know there is no higher country nearby.

For a moment I continued working on focus exposures through my guider telescope, which was hooked to my laptop on a portable table. To my annoyance the headlights were getting brighter, lighting up my camp. Then the light was brilliant. Instantly bathed in a strange, flat coppery light were the ground and trees, a steep gully, the landscape on the other side, my telescope and table, everything with sharp, fast-moving shadows. For a second the desert seemed to be in sunlight. I was afraid this vehicle was inches from running me down. I jumped from my folding chair and turned toward it – only to see the most amazing, glaring, meteor streak I’ve ever witnessed.

It was the now-famous bolide, or fireball, that lit up much of the region.

The extreme brightness was the explosion, which I saw only by the light on the area in front of me before I turned. The streak seemed nearly perpendicular, coming from the west by northwest and tilted downward to the west; it did not reach the ground. Thinking about it during the daylight and trying to estimate its size hours later, it seemed to be about 20 degrees long. There were chunks in the tail, as if pieces were falling separately; I have an impression of a yellow trail with ruddy pieces in it.

The streak disappeared quickly and I searched for a smoke tail, which could have been visible in the starlight, but did not see one.

Later in the day I heard reports about the rumble it had made and even some shaking, but my generator was too loud for any other sound to make much of an impression on me.

My tracking camera had been pointed at another section of the sky not far from the explosion, and one of the temporary frames was washed out except for vignetting at the edges; that was from the sky glow.

The Leonid meteor shower took place the previous night, leading to speculation that this was a Leonid holdover. But the site SpaceWeather.com says it wasn’t, and I agree. The Leonids are called that because they emanate from the direction of Leo. The constellation was 2 degrees below the horizon at the time, on the opposite side of the sky.

According to SpaceWeather.com, “The space rock exploded in the atmosphere with an energy equivalent to 0.5 — 1 kilotons of TNT.” By comparison, the Hiroshima atomic bomb was around 20 kilotons.

On Frisco Peak, Beaver County, the University of Utah’s new Willard L. Eccles Observatory had its surveillance cameras running. One caught the actual fireball while another filmed the bright light. See the videos by clicking HERE.

Friends in several locations saw this extraordinary event:

*** In Tooele County, Patrick Wiggins, NASA solar system ambassador to Utah, was in his home near a window whose relatively thin curtains were closed. “Suddenly this bright light appears, and I can see it through the curtains.” Realizing it was a bolide, he grabbed his watch, hoping to check the distance by the boom it would make. He observed the flash at 12:07, and “almost exactly five minutes later I heard the rumble.

“It was like distant cannon fire.”

Calculating by the speed of sound and the direction of the meteor, he thinks it may have exploded near Granite Peak on Dugway Proving Ground. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there were some pieces out there.” Anyone who finds potential pieces of it is invited to check out his web site, utahastro.info, for tips on identifying meteorites.

He said he has seen at least one larger fireball.

*** In Kanab, Jerry Foote was taking a succession of astrophotos of a cataclysmic variable star from his observatory. In one of the images, taken at 7 minutes and 7 seconds after midnight, “the sky background increased seven-fold over the previous image,” he told me via e-mail.

“The trail didn’t intersect my field of view so there wasn’t any direct image but the increase in sky background light was very noticeable.”

*** In Salt Lake City, Ray Boren was watching a TV documentary “when I saw a long flash of light through my western windows. I thought: ‘Wow. That was bright. Did someone park in my driveway or turn in next door?'” He looked out his front-door window and couldn’t see or hear a car, or locate any other source of light.

He wondered, “Was it a meteor?”

*** In Bountiful, Steve Speckman could not sleep so he was watching TV downstairs. “There’s a window to my left, and the blinds were open, and all of a sudden there was a flash of light. … the light was unusually bright and I thought it had a kind of a strange color to it.”

Reflected in his car’s windows, “there was kind of an orange tint to it.” He thought it must have been a car driving on the street, “but there was no car.” Maybe it was someone with a flashlight, he thought. In the morning he heard about the meteor, and it was a big “ah-ha” moment. It was a neat experience, Speckman said.

*** In Malad, Idaho, Preston Jay Truman — a downwinder originally from southern Utah — was “sitting at the keyboard next to a window,” with a larger window close by. “I must have noticed something because I glanced up just when it exploded,” he wrote.

“Having grown up seeing a couple of dozen real A-bombs explode,” he felt the flash was similar in color and intensity. By reflex he “quickly looked down.”

The explosion “shook me up for a couple of minutes.”

UPDATE, 11:15 p.m.:

Wiggins sent this email,saying he

“just received the following from a seismologist on one of the listserves I am on:

+++++
“‘I triangulated the terminal burst location based on 7 Utah seismic stations, and computed the following least-squares solution:

“‘40.286 N, -113.191 W, Alt. 27 km’
+++++

“That agrees nicely with what a local seismologist came up with and with what I estimated based on where I saw the burst in the sky and how long it took the sound to reach me (gee, I was correct for once ).

“Unfortunately that puts it squarely in the middle of Dugway Proving Grounds so I doubt anyone will be doing a search there anytime soon.”

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