In Ukraine, fiery objects streaking across the sky spell death and destruction in the form of manmade weapons. But natural beauty can also whiz by overhead in the form of meteors producing shooting stars as they disintegrate. A fireball from space recently zoomed above several southern states in the U.S. Great balls of fire!
While I’d describe spotting such light in the sky as beautiful or spectacular, scientists have more formal names for this phenomenon. And the name depends on where the object is. If the object is aloft, then it’s a meteor. It becomes a meteorite when a piece of debris from outer space survives passage through the atmosphere to reach the surface of a planet or moon. Obviously, I’m not a scientist, but the name meteorOUCH seems more fitting to something that crashes into the ground at high speed.
A dazzling fireball was seen in three states–Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas–in the early morning of April 27th. Numerous eyewitnesses reported the incident according to NASA Meteor Watch. The fireball Southerners spotted was initially reported to be traveling at 55,000 mph but was subsequently reduced to a mere 35,000 mph. Yes, that’s three zeroes after either a 55 or a 35. Yikes! Isn’t that speeding?
Meteors are referred to as fireballs when they appear brighter than Venus. This particular meteor appeared ten times brighter than a full moon at its peak. In fact, satellites picked up several bright flashes from the fireball. Cue music: “I wear my sunglasses at night!”
Not only was the recent meteor bright, but it generated energy equivalent to three tons of TNT. Cover your ears! Per reports, more people heard the meteor than saw it. The energy emitted rattled houses in Mississippi before the fireball ultimately disintegrated 34 miles over a swampy area north of Minorca, Louisiana.
NASA confirmed fragments found in Mississippi were indeed meteorites. For a picture of one such fragment, check out https://www.facebook.com/NASAMeteorWatch. And, yes, the fragment is black. I’d imagine being part of a fireball results in charring. While meteorites resemble Earth rocks, they have a burned exterior that can appear shiny.
Usually less than 5% of a meteor ever makes it to the ground. Most of it disintegrates when it enters the Earth’s atmosphere. Factors such as friction, chemical reactions, and pressure cause the meteor to heat up and radiate energy, turning it into a fireball. Resistance or drag of the air makes it very hot. The object disintegrates as the pressure exceeds the strength of the meteor, resulting in a bright flare. This lighted trail of vaporized material in the Earth’s atmosphere is called a “shooting star.”
Over 50,000 meteorites have been found on Earth. They usually range in size from a pebble to a fist. Sometimes their crashing into the Earth leaves an impact crater. Approximately 190 such craters dot our planet, including the Barrington Meteor Crater in Arizona which measures 0.6 miles across. Watch out below!
And finding a meteorite can lead to some interesting results. Historians indicate that the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, possibly originated from the observation and recovery of a meteorite. The discoverers believed the meteorite had fallen to Earth from Jupiter. No, not Jupiter the planet, but Jupiter the principal Roman deity.
Ancient history is part and parcel of meteorites. These objects from space represent the original, diverse materials that formed planets billions of years ago. So, holding a meteorite is like holding ancient history in your hands.
The majority of meteorites which fall to Earth are made of stone. The other two types of meteorites are iron and stony-iron. And it’s not just raindrops which keep falling on our heads. Scientists estimate some 48.5 TONS of meteorite material falls to earth EACH DAY. This amount seems more reasonable given NASA’s indication that several meteors PER HOUR can be seen ANY night. Since most meteors originate from shattered asteroids we can blame a pain in the asteroid for a heavenly night light show.
But being bonked on the head by a falling meteorite isn’t the only danger one can face as the Russians learned in 2013. A house-sized brilliant fireball lit up the skies over Chelyabinsk back then and blew up 14 miles above the ground. The blast equated to about 440,000 tons of TNT and generated shock waves powerful enough to blow out windows over a 200 square mile area. That’s a lot of glass to pick up!
While heavenly light displays cause wonder, meteors can also be destructive with shock waves and impact craters. But it’s not man’s fault when these naturally occurring space objects streak across the sky. On the other head, man-made objects which streak across the sky, such as is currently happening in Ukraine, are intentionally sent to wreak havoc from above. Let’s control what we can and stop killing one another. Instead, let’s all peacefully enjoy the night sky which may include a view of a brilliant fireball producing amazement not terror.
Have you ever spotted a meteor in the night sky? How would it feel to hold a meteorite made of material billions of years old? Is it disconcerting to realize how much debris actually falls to Earth from space on a daily basis? What would you do if you found a meteorite?