According to Berkeleyside, a mysterious light in the sky over the Bay Area baffled commuters around 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, appearing as a curly white streak pointed toward the horizon about 40 minutes after sunset and lighting up social media with queries.
It only took Lick Observatory in San Jose a few hours to illuminate the nature of this phenomena, which turned out not to be a rocket or a gas trail or any of the more exotic speculations from earlier in the might.
What everyone actually saw was a meteor, teaming up with the sun to create a particularly vivid showing for itself as it crossed Northern California. The observatory explained via Facebook:
“A bright meteor was visible in the skies over the Bay Area shortly after sunset this evening. [...] The trail was illuminated by the sun after sunset and changed shape with the upper level winds in the atmosphere.”
According to the American Meteor Society, the word “meteor” specifically refers to the light created by a falling object as it enters our atmosphere.
The small piece of space stone itself is called a “meteoroid,” usually a broken bit of an asteroid. If a falling object survives entry and hits the ground it’s dubbed a “meteorite.”
“The majority of visible meteors are caused by particles ranging in size from about that of a small pebble down to a grain of sand, and generally weigh less than” seven-hundredths of a pound. Meteoroids can travel up to 160,000 miles per hour.
Cornell University astronomer Lynn Carter says it’s probably impossible to guess how many meteorites hit the Earth every year but adds that “the mass of material that falls on Earth each year range from 37,000-78,000 tons.”
NASA says that “documented stories of meteorite-caused injury or death are rare” but that such things do sometimes happen. The earliest case in the US dates to 1954, although odds many unrecorded incidents preceded that. Most meteorite encounters cause only minor injury.
So as it turns out, Wednesday’s showing in the skies, far from mysterious, was actually mostly routine—just another extraterrestrial guest looking for a place to crash for the night.
My kids are convinced that Santa is flying around the Elmwood. pic.twitter.com/qMaK98gQ6O— Lori Droste (@loridroste) December 20, 2018