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Fireball Friday: The day cosmic debris lit up skies around the world

CNET logo CNET 9/28/2021 Eric Mack
A fireball caught over Great Britain on Sept. 24. American Meteor Society/David A. © Provided by CNET A fireball caught over Great Britain on Sept. 24. American Meteor Society/David A.

It wasn't an alien invasion or the day the dinosaur-killing comet hit Earth. It was just an ordinary Friday. In fact, it was last Friday, a fireball Friday many will remember, you might say. 

At least 10 fireballs were reported around the world on Sept. 24 (going by local time), according to the American Meteor Society, which catalogs all fireball events reported by at least five eyewitnesses. That's an unusual amount of activity for a single calendar day, particularly when you consider that right now is a relatively quiet period for meteor showers.

Fireballs are typically harmless and result when chunks of space detritus like little pebbles that may have broken off of  asteroids, or even pieces of artificial satellites, collide with the top of Earth's atmosphere at high speed and burn up. Fireballs are often seen during high periods of meteor activity like the peak of showers, but the next such peak won't come until mid-October with the southern Taurids. 

Still, reports flooded in on Friday from the southeastern quarter of the US, where over 160 people reported a fireball at 7:40 p.m. ET and a few managed to capture it on video.

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"An analysis of these accounts shows that the meteor skimmed the coast of North Carolina, becoming visible 48 miles above the ocean off Camp Lejeune, moving northeast at 32,000 miles per hour," NASA wrote on Facebook. "It disintegrated 28 miles above Morehead City, after traveling 26 miles through Earth's upper atmosphere."

Then, less than an hour later, another fireball was reported over 60 times with the sightings centered just a little further to the north along the Washington, DC - Philadelphia - New York City corridor. 

Those two fireballs had the most eyewitness reports, probably owing to the highly populated regions they passed over. Four other sightings over the US that day also made it into the database with far fewer eyewitness reports, which may be due to the fact that three of them occurred during daylight hours and the other burned up over the more sparsely populated northern Rockies states.

A fireball caught over Great Britain on Sept. 24. © American Meteor Society / David A.

A fireball caught over Great Britain on Sept. 24.

Yet another four meteors were reported on Sept. 24 over Europe. 

Perhaps our planet passed through a small pocket of cosmic debris last week, resulting in a burst of fire in the sky, or it may just be the randomness of a planet whipping through space, which is less empty than we might think. 

Either way, there's little to worry about as most fireballs totally burn up many miles above the surface and astronomers are working hard to track all the near-Earth objects that could present a threat to our planet, including addressing a few potential blind spots. So sleep easy, but keep your eyes on the sky. 


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