Meteor Lights Up Mid-atlantic Area's Skies

July 07, 2009|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,

Scores of people in Maryland and Pennsylvania who lingered outdoors into the early morning hours Monday were startled by the brilliant flash of a meteor that soared over the Mid-Atlantic states.

Many more were rattled in their beds by the sonic boom that followed the flash. Sam Luther witnessed both events from a camp on the Susquehanna River near Delta, Pa.

"We were sitting by the campfire on the river talking when the entire sky lit up for 3-5 seconds," he said in a post to TheBaltimore Sun's Weather Blog. "It was as if it were daylight outside. ... Approximately 60-90 seconds after the sky had lit up, we heard a thunderous series of sonic boom sounds accompanied by tremors."

Both phenomena were almost certainly caused by the entry of a relatively large meteor into the Earth's atmosphere. To produce a fireball bright enough to attract widespread attention, geologists say, the meteor would have to be perhaps a few yards in diameter.

Based on readers' descriptions, the object flew roughly south to north over Central Maryland and southern Pennsylvania before vaporizing about 1:10 a.m.

"They're all pieces of space debris," bits of rock or dust from comets or asteroids, said Jim O'Leary, director of the Maryland Science Center's Davis Planetarium. "Most of them are very tiny," but thanks to the tremendous speed with which they enter the atmosphere, they can burn up with a tremendous flash of light. "They can also produce sonic booms."

While many occur unnoticed in daylight, or over the ocean, "to see one over your area is a rare and special occurrence."

A Weather Blog poster named Diane was outside her home near Port Deposit when the fireball appeared. "The whole yard lit up. I looked up to the sky to see a huge fireball with a long trail. It made no noise until about 30 seconds later, at that point there was a loud boom followed by the whole house shaking. ... I will never forget this amazing and a little scary sighting."

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