SEATTLE – A meteor that streaked across Western Washington early Thursday morning was the most dramatic light and sound show of its kind over the Puget Sound in decades, according to a University of Washington astronomy lecturer who specializes in meteorites.
“Earth is hit all of the time. What is uncommon is how very bright this was. Most (meteoroids) burn up very high and nobody sees them,” said Toby Smith, who has been in the UW astronomy department for about 10 years.
A meteoroid is what the object is called above the atmosphere. The light streak it creates when it bounces off or passes through the atmosphere is called a meteor. If it hits the ground, it becomes a meteorite.
Witnesses along a 60-mile swath from Tacoma to Whidbey Island and as far as 260 miles to the east said the sky lit up brilliantly at 2:40 a.m. Thursday, and many reported booming sounds as if from one or more explosions.
The bright light can be attributed to the speed at which the object hit the atmosphere. The sonic boom that followed about a minute or two later can be explained by the size of the object falling out of the sky, Smith said, adding that it’s rare for meteors to be heard. “This tells us it was a relatively substantial piece,” he said.
One of Smith’s colleagues, Don Brownlee, said his son saw the bright light and then the whole family heard the sonic boom from inside their houseboat. “We heard this incredible noise that sounded like a truck landing on the dock,” Brownlee said.
Geoff Chester, a spokesman for the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., said meteors are not rare, but many fall over the ocean and are never seen. “For the average person, it could be a once- or twice-in-a-lifetime kind of event,” Chester said, adding that in the past 40 years of actively watching the night sky because of his job and interests, he has only seen three or four meteors.
Brownlee said he believes it likely the object did make it to the ground without disintegrating, but it could be as hard to find as a shower of gravel over several square miles. It could also be as big as a car, but Brownlee noted, “The bigger these things are, the rarer they are.”
Scientists are interested in recovering meteorites because they offer a glimpse of the kind of material that formed the Earth and the other planets, without the impact of the intervening 4.5 billion years of life inside an atmosphere.
“Some of these objects are as old as the solar system itself. That’s why geologists and astrogeologists want to get their hands on as many as possible,” Chester said.
Earlier speculation that the flash in the sky could have been space junk rather than natural material falling through the atmosphere was discounted by Chester, whose department tracks man-made materials orbiting the earth. He said nothing in orbit large enough to make such a bright light show was in the vicinity when the meteor was reported.