'Fireball' That Lit Up The Midwest Sky Could Have Been A Meteor Or Just Artificial Debris

By Josh Lieberman on December 27, 2013 2:57 PM EST

midwest fireball
Hundreds of skywatchers in the Midwest witnessed a fireball on Thursday night. (Photo: Twitter @ObservingSpace)

Hundreds of people in the midwest reported seeing a fireball streak across the sky last night sometime between 4:17 PM and 4:35 PM. The American Meteor Society received over 600 reports of the fireball in 14 hours, making it their fifth-most reported fireball since they started their online tracking system. The fireball was possibly a meteor or just some space junk burning up in the atmosphere, and was reportedly seen in Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Nebraska.

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The National Weather Service thought they caught the fireball on one their Iowa City cameras, but now they believe they were just looking at Venus. "We're looking at the reports, also," said Kurt Kotenberg of the NWS. "The interesting thing about it, Venus was visible in the sky just after sunset."

Iowans described seeing the fireball on the Facebook page of Des Moines station WHO TV. Commenter Jacob Kranovich wrote: "I literally drove right underneath it. It looked like a giant firework going sideways. It gave off a bright green glowing color (I'm dead serious) and broke up and sparks showered everywhere and faded out." Others who saw the fireball thought it was a shooting star or fireworks, while one Iowan suggested the post-Christmas fireball was "Santa kicking on his afterburner on his way to the North Pole."

"When you see something, these flashing lights in the sky, we call these meteors," said Steven Spangler, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Iowa. "I think most of those are actual natural objects...but we've been launching stuff up into space for 56 years now and some of that comes down in the form of space junk."

And there is a lot of space junk out there. The U.S. Strategic Command's Joint Space Operations Center, which tracks all artificial earth-orbiting objects, has catalogued 39,000 manmade objects since 1957. The Strategic Command currently has its eye on 16,000 earth-orbiting objects, and says that five percent of these are functioning payloads or satellites, eight percent are rocket bodies and roughly 87 percent are either debris or inactive satellites. 

Fireballs are meteors which are at least magnitude -4, meaning they are at least as bright as Venus in the morning or evening sky. In 2012, the American Meteor Society listed reports of 2,149 fireballs. That sounds like a lot, except when you consider that as many as several thousand actually occur every day, but go unnoticed because they take place in uninhabited areas or oceans or they occur during the day, when they're not visible to the naked eye.   

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