The bright fireball that lit up the sky in the Midwest and was seen by people in Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri about 5:40 p.m Thursday night was likely a meteor, but it might have been a huge chunk of space debris crashing to the Earth. What it actually was might never be known, unless remnants of whatever it was can be located.
Eyewitnesses reported that what they saw looked like a bright, colorful light that moved either south to north or east to west. In Williamson, Iowa, an amateur meteor spotter captured the fireball on his camera. It looks like a meteor that is crossing the north sky. Though experts say that meteors are fairly common, and on clear nights sometimes you can view several of them, seeing one as large and as bright as the one reported last Thursday night is rare.
According to Richard Miles, an astronomy expert at the Science Center of Iowa, if the fireball seen in the night sky was a meteor, “it was probably a pretty good sized one to be as bright as it was.”
However, Miles left open the possibility the fireball approximately 700 eyewitnesses saw could have been space debris. According to Miles, any object “that goes through our atmosphere from outer space is going to be going at pretty intense speeds.”
If the object that looked like a fireball — or parts of it — crashed into the Earth, there might be, Miles continued, “something left behind that impacted somewhere,” Miles said. By analyzing the video taken of the fireball, Miles stated that it may be possible to “actually trace where that may have impacted.”
The National Weather Service is one of the organizations trying to discover what the fireball could have been. The favorite theory, by far, is that the object was a meteor, but that has not yet been proven by the discovery of any impact crater or pieces of a meteorite. The planet Venus can been seen in the video, which lasts for just a few seconds.
Reports by Midwest media sources seem to agree, in general, that the fireball that was seen Thursday night was a meteor, but other reports leave open the possibility it could be something else, like space debris.
For example, the Des Moines Register spoke with both an astronomy and a physics professor who said that, while the end of December was not considered to be a time when there were many meteors, “sporadic meteors” happened all the time.
However, WHO-TV of Des Moines, Iowa, reported that a meteor that looked as big and as bright as the fireball seen last Thursday were rare, suggesting that the fireball might have been just space debris rather than a meteor.
According to Steven Spangler, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Iowa, a north-to-south path could be one consistent with the space junk theory, that the fireball could have been caused by a rocket’s booster engine or pieces from a surveillance satellite re-entering into the earth’s atmosphere. Spangler stated that “we’ve been launching stuff up into space for 56 years now and some of that comes down in the form of space junk.”
Greg Woolever, observatory director for the Des Moines Astronomical Society, agreed that the object could have been space debris, saying that such “space junk” re-entering into the earth’s atmosphere “could be pretty spectacular.”
If you reside in the Midwest, were you one of the people who witnessed seeing the intensely bright and colorful fireball? If so, please leave a comment below, describing what you saw, and if you think that the fireball was a meteor, space debris, or…something else, like maybe an alien spacecraft.
Written by: Douglas Cobb
Midwest fireball video