John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
One witness said "it looked like we had seen the International Space Station come down."
Around 7:45 Wednesday evening, the skies over the California coast lit up like a birthday cake as a giant fireball punctured the atmosphere and cruised slowly toward Canada. Some witnesses described it as brighter than the moon, shaking buildings with sonic booms; our own Sara Johnson's mom, who lives near the Bay, said she "thought it was an earthquake."
Turns out lots of people were stunned by this by-all-accounts monstrous meteor. Firsthand stories are pouring in at the Lunar Meteorite Hunters, a site devoted to gathering the broken fragments of spaceballs. One person in Larkspur, California, writes: "Saw a large flash, looked up and saw the falling pieces on fire. Then the girls' water-polo team across the school started to scream." A man in Carmel adds: "Possibly the single most awesome sight I have ever seen.... Another witness commented that it looked like we had seen the International Space Station come down."
An amateur astronomer in Antioch thinks it couldn't have vaporized in the air, like many meteors. "I've seen many fireballs that break apart. That one was slower than normal, broke into too many pieces NOT to have many fragments fall to Earth. Anyone in Eugene, OR, want to report a hole in their wall?"
This is how widespread the awe of the eyeball-singing spectacle spread in California and beyond. The map shows sightings from last night that were reported to the Lunar Hunters:
It would be unusual, and awful, if something as huge as this went undocumented. But we're in luck: A couple quick-fingered photographers caught the blazing rock before it split up into a flurry of dead flechettes. The image at the very top of this post was taken by Rachel Fritz and Rick Nolthenius of Cabrillo College, in Santa Cruz. They submitted it to NASA's Ames Research Center – as did Wes Jones, in Belmont, with this stunner:
The commandingly named Lick Observatory caught security-camera footage of the fire-shrouded visitor. It makes an appearance at the very beginning (keep the camera rolling if you like watching out-of-focus views of the San Jose skyline and a 40-inch Nickel refracting telescope dome):
This secondary video from Lick shows it shrieking by at the 40-second mark:
Some people are connecting the fireball to the Orionid meteor shower, an annual incineration of Halley's Comet tail-dust. But that shower isn't set to peak until the weekend. And as NASA's Tony Phillips points out at Spaceweather, the "timing and direction of the meteor do not seem to match the Orionids."