A meteor that looked like an immense ball of fire streaked across the sky along the East Coast Friday night, astounding viewers across Massachusetts and beyond with its fascinating, colorful tail.
Following the meteor that burned across Russia’s sky a little over a month ago, damaging buildings and injuring more than 1,000 people, Friday night’s meteor provided a brief, glowing spectacle that lit up parts of New England at around 8 p.m., according to an astronomer at the Clay Center Observatory in Brookline.
Although seemingly close to the Earth’s surface, the meteor was farther away than it appeared, said Kelly Beatty, an astronomer for the Clay Center.
“People saw this for about three to five seconds, 10 seconds max,” said Beatty. “It’s deceptive. It looks so close, but this is not something that happens close to the ground. About 50 to 60 miles up is typical for this, depending on the angle.”
As to the exact details of Friday’s phenomenon, Beatty cautioned that most early reports came from eyewitnesses and “need to be taken with a grain of salt.” Much like the meteor in Russia, Beatty said dashboard and security cameras will help scientists hone in on the specifics of the meteor, such as direction and size.
Despite the short time in between the meteor in Russia and the spectacle on Friday, the two are not linked nor comparable in size, he said.
“This is not nearly as big as [Russia’s meteor], not in a long shot,” said Beatty. “There’s a hundred tons of meteorite that hit the Earth’s atmosphere every day. [This] was a large-ish object that may have been the size of about a washing machine, approximately.”
Beatty said the object hit the planet’s atmosphere traveling northwest to southeast at an estimated 20 miles per second, but it could have been anywhere from 15 to 50 miles per second.
“Because it comes in so fast, it encounters the atmosphere like a brick wall,” he said. “As it enters the atmosphere, it has a lot of friction. It’s kinetic energy heats up the air along its path to a couple of thousand degrees. That superheated air is what we see.”
According to Beatty, the meteor broke into pieces as it hit the atmosphere. The pieces, or meteorites, have not been reported to have hit land, he said.
“Any meteorites that did fall probably fell into the Atlantic,” said Beatty.
The meteor that streaked across Russia in February was much closer to the ground and exploded more than 12 miles above the Earth’s surface. It blew up over Chelyabinsk, where the shock waves shattered windows and caused damage to the city, along with injuring residents. That event marked the largest recorded meteor since 1908.
Boston police said no calls came in regarding the meteor Friday night, and State Police reported one call.
Beatty said an occurrence like the one in Friday night’s sky does not happen often.
“An object this bright and this spectacular is rare,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect to see another fireball like this for another 10 to 20 years.”