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Meteor Mania
Meteor Mania
2 Oct 2003
(Source: The Planetary Society)

Meteors Raining From the Sky
By Melanie Melton Knocke
The Planetary Society
October 2, 2003

Meteors raining from the heavens this past week have not only provided impressive sky shows for those fortunate (or unfortunate) to be in their paths - but have also burn down homes, injured people, and punched a hole through a two-story house.

Encounter #1: September 23, 2003 - New Orleans, Louisiana

Roy Fausset came home to find his newly remodeled bathroom looking like a war zone with debris everywhere and a big hole punched in ceiling. Further investigation revealed a large, basketball-sized hole in his roof, a destroyed desk on top of a hole in the floor of his daughter's second story bedroom, and a hole in the bathroom floor leading to a crawl space beneath the house.

Neighbors in the area reported hearing a loud noise, like a car crash, a little after 4:00 p.m. that afternoon, but no one had seen anything out of place - until Fausset got home, that is.

In the crawl space of Fausset's house, investigators discovered several chucks of a sandy-colored rock whose outer layer appeared somewhat burnt. Samples of the mysterious intruder were taken to Tulane University for testing where it was discovered to be a stony meteorite, one of the more common types of space rocks.

It is rare for a meteor to survive its passage through Earth's thick atmosphere without completely burning up in the process. For one to punch through someone's living quarters is extremely rare - or was so until this week. Read on.

Encounter #2: September 24, 2003 - South Wales, Great Britian

A teenager, Jon Burnett, was outside taking pictures of his skateboarding friends around 6:00 in the evening when he looked up and saw what appeared to be a large fireball in the sky. He took a photograph of the frightening sight, and then a couple of minutes later took another image, showing a fading glow.

Unsure of what he had just seen, he sent a copy of the image to NASA requesting information. The next thing Jon knew, NASA had posted his image on their Astronomy Image of the Day site claiming that it was an image of a large meteor entering Earth's atmosphere. Upon further reflection, however, some are questioning NASA's original conclusion.

Neil Bone, the Director of the British Astronomical Association's (BAA) Meteor Section believes that Jon was seeing was sunlight reflected off of an airplane's contrail - not a meteor entering Earth's atmosphere. The BAA keeps track of all meteor sightings and there were no other reports of a fireball on the evening of September 24.

Also, the fact that Jon was able to take a second photograph a couple of minutes later and still capture the red glow causes one to question the fireball theory. A fireball passes through the atmosphere fast, within a few seconds. If it had been a meteor, it is highly unlikely that there would be any evidence of its passage a couple of minutes after its appearance.

Regardless of its nature, it's still a cool image!

Encounter #3: September 27, 2003 - Orissa region of India

The people of two small villages in the eastern Indian state of Orissa had their evening rudely interrupted when pieces of flaming rock started falling out of the sky. There are reports that anywhere from three to twenty people were injured in the incident and that some of the village's grass huts were burned to the ground.

A brilliant fireball preceded the rain of fire in Orissa. This fireball was seen by many from several districts within the state, covering an area of almost 14,500 square kilometers.

Officials from the state government and the Geological Survey of India are investigating the area, looking for samples of the meteorite that caused all of the panic and destruction. Several pieces have been recovered so far, with the two largest pieces weighing about three kilograms each. The surfaces of these rocks are black, while their interiors are grey.

What makes this event extremely unusual is the fact that these pieces were actually on fire when they hit the ground. Normally, meteors are barely warm by the time they hit the ground. The reason behind this flaming shower has yet to be understood.

Encounter #4: September 29,2003 - Western Europe

Just after 10:00 p.m. local time, people in France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands were witness to a giant fireball. It appears the large meteor passed over Northern France, in the area of Verdun.

Encounter #5: September 29, 2003 - California's San Francisco Bay Area, United States

Just before 8:00 p.m. local time, people in the San Jose area of California witnessed a giant fireball streaking over the South Bay. The meteor was traveling from east to west and was visible for three to ten seconds. Some witnesses saw the meteor flare (or brighten) several times before disappearing below the horizon.

So, why all of the action?

Good question - but no one really knows the answer. Normally, a meteor (or shooting star, or falling star) is just a tiny piece of space dust that burns up as it enters Earth's atmosphere. On any given night, we can see three to four meteors per hour - if you happen to be looking in the right area of the sky at the right time. Occasionally, there are meteor showers, where the number of meteors per hour increases to 20 - 50.

This past week, however, this was not the case. There were no predicted meteor showers, just large rogue meteors that made their way to Earth in spectacular fashion. I guess this is Mother Nature's way of letting us know who's boss.

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Last Updated: 8 Oct 2003