People describe meteor: 'like a firework, going really fast'

January 26, 1995|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

People from Maryland to Virginia who happened to glance south just after sunset on Sunday are still talking about a bright fireball that swept across the sky before blowing apart.

"It was bright green and it fragmented into maybe a dozen pieces at the end of its travel," said Kevin Jones, 20, of Arlington, Va., who called the Smithsonian Institution this week to report what he saw.

An amateur astronomer, Mr. Jones said he was riding in a car near Williamsburg, Va., at about 5:20 p.m. on his way back to school at the College of William and Mary. The meteor was moving from the east to the south-southwest.

"It must have been incredibly bright, because it was almost daylight; the sun had just set," he said.

A meteor is "a lump of rock burning up in Earth's atmosphere, and its great-grandfather killed the dinosaurs," said Dr. Richard Henry, professor of physics and astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University.

Fireballs that break apart or explode as they heat up are called bolides.

Meteor sightings at night are "fairly routine," he said. But the fact this one was seen at dusk suggests it was bigger and brighter than usual. "If it's big enough and actually moving fast enough, it could be seen at noon," he said.

Dasha Bindler, 40, saw Sunday's fireball as she walked near Falls and Padonia roads in Baltimore County.

"At first I thought maybe some kids were shooting bottle rockets, but there was nobody in the field and it would have had to be shot very high," she said. "It had, like, a sparkly tail to it."

That's almost exactly what Ann Dryden saw from her home in Roland Park.

"It was a sort of a streak, almost like a firework, going really fast through the sky," said the 36-year-old graphic artist. "I had a sense that it was a plane on fire, but much faster. It had a slightly arced trajectory and it went 'poof' at the end."

Ms. Dryden estimated she saw the object for about three seconds. "At first I was very startled."

Timothy O'Hearn, 43, a volcanologist at the Smithsonian Institution, said he saw the fireball while driving near Springfield, Va. "When it disappeared, there were two or three streaks of green light. They sort of dropped, fell away," he said.

Richard D. Grim, 46, a construction supervisor from Catonsville, saw it while driving south on the Baltimore Beltway. "It looked like it was probably 20 degrees above the horizon," he said. "It had a tail on it that was blue-green, and . . . at the very end, a few large pieces came off the back of it. It was the most phenomenal thing I've ever seen like that."

The U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington reported receiving eight to 10 telephone calls from people who saw the fireball.

Most meteors are caused by particles no bigger than sand grains. As they encounter increasingly dense air 50 to 75 miles above the Earth's surface, they heat up, glow and vaporize, becoming visible briefly to observers in dark locations.

Objects that reach the surface are called meteorites. Big ones can be enormously destructive. A growing number of eroded impact craters are being identified around the world. A giant meteorite impact in Mexico has been blamed for environmental disruptions that caused a mass extinction 65 million years ago, ending the age of dinosaurs.

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