A fireball visible from 14 states and parts of Canada shot across the night sky Tuesday evening, creating a sonic boom that shook homes in southeast Michigan.
The streaking flash of light, which was also seen in the Chicago area, was caused by a meteor thought to be roughly two feet across that sped through the atmosphere at around 7:10 p.m. CST before breaking up in the area of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The United States Geological Survey reported that the sonic boom from the meteor registered as a category 2.0 earthquake centered near New Haven, Michigan.
News stations in Michigan were flooded with reports from eyewitnesses. The International Meteor Organization, headquartered in Belgium, said 398 people contacted them to report seeing the fireball.
From Chicago, the fireball would have been visible low on the eastern horizon, according to astronomer Mark Hammergren of the Adler Planetarium.
Such spectacular celestial displays are rare in any particular location but happen on average about 20-30 times a year around the world.
“We happen to be fortunate in the Chicago area because just last year in February of 2017 we had a bright meteor that came in over Wisconsin and that was visible as well in the Chicago area,” Hammergren said.
“Events like this are large enough that they may drop meteors on the ground and we believe this is the case with this event because those falling meteorites were picked up by weather radar. The National Weather Service Nexrad radar out of Detroit shows some radar hits, some clouds of fragments falling through the air so we have a pretty good idea where these came down,” he said.
Any fragments are likely to weigh around 10 grams or less and be less than an inch across.
“You’d be looking for small black or brownish things the size of pebbles that have a matte or maybe even a glossy somewhat black or brownish crust to them. They will be relatively rounded but they won’t be quite as rounded as river rocks. Any rocks that look like they’ve been burnt – they aren’t going to be meteorites, that’s a popular misconception,” Hammergren said.
It’s too early to say where Tuesday’s meteor originated, but by analyzing the videos and triangulating the data it should ultimately be possible to figure that out.
“Statistically speaking, the vast majority of meteorites come from asteroids. Of all of the fireballs that have been tracked back to their orbits all of them take us back out to the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. I would expect this to be much the same,” Hammergren said.
A meteoroid is a space rock that has broken away from an asteroid. When a meteoroid falls into the Earth’s atmosphere it vaporizes and creates a meteor or shooting star. If any fragments remain and fall to Earth they are called meteorites.
Hammergren thinks there is a reasonable chance that some fragments from this meteor will be recovered.
“In general, for this event the meteorites will be confined to a very small region maybe about 10 miles north of Ann Arbor, Michigan,” he said. “Unfortunately, the weather was a little bit against us in that it was snowing at the time in that area so snow might have covered up the fragments. … On the other hand, it is a populated area and it may be that people even had their homes and cars pelted with tiny rocks. They should certainly look in the streets and on their sidewalks and driveways for these things.”
And if some fragments are found, they could provide fresh insights into the formation of our Solar System.
Hammergren joins host Phil Ponce to discuss the Michigan meteor sighting.
Dec. 19: It might sound like an episode of “The X-Files,” but a story reported Saturday by the New York Times sheds light on an official Pentagon program that researched and investigated unidentified flying objects.
Aug. 21: Onlookers were treated to a clear view of the solar eclipse in Carbondale. “It was a festival sort of atmosphere,” Amanda Vinicky said. “You literally had a beer tent, carnival rides, and band, a whole lot of very excited people wearing garb for the solar eclipse.”
Feb. 6, 2017: A bright meteor streaked across skies in Chicago and the Midwest at about 1:30 a.m. Monday.