Fireball

05 January 2013 | Permalink

The first time I ever saw a shooting star was in Italy. After about half an hour of lying on my back in an alpine meadow on a slightly chilly summer evening, I was rewarded by the sight of a brief, faint streak of white against the starry sky. It was so faint, in fact, that I couldn't be quite certain that I'd actually seen anything at all.

Tonight, as I was walking south on Suffolk Street a little after 6:30, the sky to the east lit up momentarily with a brilliant white light trail, a short-lived but intense greenish-white light traveling from north to south, just above the housetops, moving far faster than any aircraft. A bright central object was accompanied by one or two other, slightly less bright lights, each with their own trail, which burned out and faded away perhaps half a second before the main object disappeared. The whole display lasted a second or two at the most, but there was nothing faint or ambiguous about it. It was large and low and very bright and it made me think of videos that I'd seen of meteor fireballs or of spacecraft disintegrating on re-entry. After a moment's fear that what I had seen was an aircraft breaking up, I decided that it must have been a meteor.

Later, I started to feel less certain. Perhaps what I'd seen was simply the reflection of a car's headlights on my glasses, whose coating can give reflected light a greenish tinge. When I checked Twitter, however, I found that I wasn't alone: in Reading, PA, from Halifax and Flushing, and other locations, people described seeing something bright shoot across the sky, all at very close to the same time.

The Quadrantid meteors are peaking this week, so it's possible that my fireball was associated with them. All I can say is that I've never seen anything like it previously: it was whole orders of magnitude larger and brighter than any shooting star I've seen before.