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Midnight meteor fascinates Utahns

Published November 18, 2009 8:08 pm

Cosmos » Bright flash was seen as far away as California.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The spectacular streak that lit up the night sky early Wednesday had people abuzz at the Clark Planetarium.

Student groups couldn't stop asking about what caused the bright flash, and several people came to the planetarium throughout the day to find out more about the event.

It intrigued Monica Rawlings and Phil Beach enough to drive up from Spanish Fork to find answers about what they saw.

The couple were driving home from a concert just after midnight when they saw the meteor, called a fireball or bolide because of its intense light output.

"It was like the arc of a welder, it was so bright," said Beach, adding that he could see Mount Nebo and the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon clearly in the five-second glow just after midnight.

The meteor was likely bigger than a basketball but smaller than the house-sized meteor that lit up the daytime sky in 1972, said Seth Jarvis, director of the Clark Planetarium.

The Earth picks up about 100 tons of meteors a day, though most of them are about the size of a grain of sand. Larger meteors fall fairly often to the Earth, but usually streak across water or unpopulated areas.

"It's like the Earth is a car driving down the freeway. You usually hit some swarm of gnats going along, but once in awhile you hit something big like a katydid and it leaves a big splat on your windshield," Jarvis said. "Last night was that katydid, and it happened in a place with a lot of people at a time when people were out and about."

Rawlings was fascinated not only by the bright light, but the smoke-like trail it left behind, which is caused by ionized gases.

"We were arguing about where it hit," she said. "I really thought it hit the field near us."

In reality, the meteorite likely is somewhere in southern Utah, or even farther south, Jarvis said.

Regardless of where it hit, several people felt the fireball as it passed.

Dwightel Ivey awoke in her Stockton home as her windows rattled and photographs fell from her wall.

She thought it might be an intruder, so she grabbed a hammer and her 5-year-old yellow Labrador, Marley, and looked through the house. When she saw the photos crashed to the floor, she thought it was an earthquake.

"It was kind of amazing, it really was," Ivey said.

The University of Utah's seismograph station in the Fish Springs Wildlife Refuge area to the far southwest of Tooele picked up vibrations that appear to have been caused by the meteor's sonic boom, said Relu Burlacu, a seismologist.

Patrick Wiggins, NASA solar system ambassador to Utah, saw the intense white light at his office in Stansbury Park and ran outside. He started his stopwatch and five minutes later heard a boom and rumble. He thought it hit Dugway Proving Ground.

Dugway spokesman Al Vogel, though, said "there is no indication that any pieces ever fell on or near Dugway.

Chances are the meteor struck much farther away. David Kieda, chairman of the U.'s department of physics and astronomy, said he has heard reports of people from California, Nevada, Idaho and Colorado having seen the flash.

The U.'s newly opened Willard L. Eccles Observatory, located at about 9,600 feet on Frisco Peak near Milford, caught video of the event.

"It was a beautiful astronomical event for sure," Kieda said. "It was a bright flash. Most are just little tiny blips. This was a fantastic thing."

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What is a meteor?

A typical meteor is usually only about the size of a grain of sand. It is made of up rock that usually is a chunk from an asteroid or a clump of cosmic dust. When in space, it is called a meteoroid. When it enters Earth's atmosphere, it is then called a meteor. The Earth picks up about 100 tons of meteors a day, and most go unnoticed. But occasionally, a meteor turns into what astronomers call a bolide or fireball. Those are caused by meteors that can range in size from a football to a house. They burn intensely, often lighting up the sky, and then explode into small pieces.

"There usually isn't a crater," said Seth Jarvis, director of the Clark Planetarium. "It's like throwing rocks into the Grand Canyon."

Once a meteor hits Earth, it is called a meteorite.

Falling star

To see video of the meteor, go to sltrib.com.