Stargazing: Fireball lights up sky over California, Nevada

January 19, 2013 at 10:54 AM

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A fireball spotted across a wide swath of the West from Reno to San Francisco might have broken up over the Pacific Ocean, experts said Friday.

The American Meteor Society based in New York has received reports from about 50 people in California and Nevada who saw the brilliant streak of light at 5:21 a.m. Thursday, spokesman Robert Lunsford said.

Lunsford said most of the reports came from the San Francisco Bay Area, but the fireball also was seen around Reno, and in San Diego and Redding, Calif. Most people described seeing an intense flash of blue or white light.

“It looks like it was heading from east to west, so it may have made it into the ocean,” Lunsford told The Associated Press. “Most of the people who saw it were heading off to work in the dark, and say it lit up the ground like it was almost daylight.”

Ronald Normandin was driving to work in Vacaville, Calif., when the fireball lit up the inside of his car.

“It looked like it was real close. It had a long streak of light, and the front part appeared to be huge and a squarish shape,” he said.

Marnie Mattice, of Reno, said she was jogging with a friend when she saw the meteor light up the sky “kind of like lightning,” then appear like “a very bright signal flare” in the distance.

“It wasn’t symmetrical like a star, but more of an irregular circle. As it burned out, it left a trail and what appeared to be smaller glowing particles. It lasted long enough that we could stand and watch it burn out completely,” she said.

The fireball might have been about the size of a small car when it entered Earth’s atmosphere, Lunsford said, adding that it most likely disintegrated from five to 50 miles above Earth. He said its speed wasn’t immediately known, but even the slowest meteors travel 10 miles per second, which is much faster than a speeding bullet.

While meteors streak through the sky around the globe every day, they’re rare to see because they also occur during daylight hours, on cloudy nights or over remote, uninhabited areas.

Thursday’s event wasn’t as spectacular as an April 22 fireball that streaked across the same general line of California and Nevada, said Dan Ruby of the Fleischmann Planetarium in Reno.

Experts said the earlier fireball was probably about the size of a minivan when it entered the Earth’s atmosphere with a loud boom and about one-third of the explosive force of the atomic bomb. It was seen from San Francisco and Sacramento, Calif., to Las Vegas and parts of northern Nevada.

“This latest fireball was a run-of-the-mill fireball. It wasn’t as big or loud,” Ruby said.

Only a handful of people reported hearing a “rumbling” noise with it, Lunsford said.

Astronomers say the meteor heralds the upcoming start of “fireball season,” as February, March and April are the best months to see one anywhere in the sky just after sundown.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.