Meteor dazzles; showers peak Sun.

By Alex MacLean, The Union Democrat October 19, 2012 12:27 pm

A “large fireball” that streaked across the Wednesday night sky puzzled Californians from San Francisco to Mendocino County, including some right here in the Mother Lode.

Sonora area resident Ann Marie Wong, 70, didn’t know what to make of the burning object as it came into view outside her living room window about 7:45 p.m.

 

“At first, I thought I saw a plane that was on fire,” she said. “It was shooting off white sparks, so I dialed 911 and they took the information.”

Wong was later informed the soaring ball of fire wasn’t a commercial airliner about to crash into New Melones Reservoir, but rather one of several meteors that alarmed residents throughout Northern California.

“I told my husband I’ll go my whole lifetime and probably won’t see anything like that again,” she said.

Wong said the vividly colored fireball had an “ink blue” and “kelly green” tail with an orange and red nose. She also said white sparks were shooting from it like a plane falling apart in midair.

Bill Cooke, a meteor specialist with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said on Thursday the sparks were likely pieces of astral rock breaking off as the meteor penetrated the atmosphere.

“It came very low,” he said. “It looked like it moved to the northwest and headed out over the ocean.”

Cooke said it was probably a rogue chunk of rock from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, not part of the Orionid meteor shower that’s supposed to be visible through Sunday.

NASA researchers are still collecting data including videos and pictures that will help them determine the meteor’s trajectory orbit, which should give them a definitive answer as to where it came from, Cooke said.

Scientists believe the meteor was probably the size of a basketball or slightly larger, Cooke said. In contrast, the asteroid that hit the earth and led to the extinction of dinosaurs is thought to have been about six miles in diameter.

“I’m afraid armageddon will have to wait,” Cooke said.