They saw it across New England — night owls and light sleepers, long-haul truck drivers and twentysomethings wandering home from the bars, even a fisherman out at sea: A bright streak shooting across the sky for several seconds around 12:50 a.m. Tuesday, ending with a burst of color.
Though a few on Twitter wondered if it might be a UFO or a North Korean rocket, most soon realized it was a meteor — the unusually bright kind known as a fireball. By Tuesday afternoon, 450 people across the region had filed detail reports with the American Meteor Society.
Coupled with a boom heard in some places, it was an audiovisual phenomenon that night-sky observers say happens only a handful of times a year — but not always over a region populated with potential observers. People as far off as New Jersey and Ontario could see it streaking above New England before the ball estimated at five feet in diameter and shrinking broke apart miles above western Maine — though a trick of perspective made it appear exhilaratingly close to those who saw it.
Jaquelyn Fabian, an actress driving home from a late shoot on an indie horror flick, feared it had crashed into a dense neighborhood in Lowell. Workers on a supermarket roof in Rochester, N.H., watched it vanish at the nearby tree line. And Kathryn Riley, a Boston College senior, looked up in Cleveland Circle and thought another soon-to-graduate student had shot off a firework.
“The trail of it was super yellow, and I think I saw purple,” said Riley, who soon realized she might have seen a fireball meteor after doing a Google image search while standing on Beacon Street. “And then when it hit, or wherever it went, there was a green flash.”
As they left the watering hole Mary Ann’s, only some of her friends had the good fortune to be looking up, too.
“They kept joking the rest of the night that we didn’t actually see anything, that we just witnessed a weird Green Line mishap,” Riley said. “We were pretty adamant.”
Working the overnight in Maine, Portland Police Sergeant Tim Farris caught the fireball on his dashcam, tearing toward the horizon.
“I looked up and saw this giant fireball streaking across the sky, and it seemed to explode into a million pieces,” said Farris, a 19-year veteran of the force, bracing himself for a boom. He radioed dispatch to prepare them for alarmed calls from neighbors.
Except the dispatcher only half believed him, which is why Farris hit a key to tag the footage captured by his rolling dashcam. At the station, other officers coming off shifts marveled at the footage. One of them — Brent Abbott, who often posts lighthearted messages to the public on the department’s Facebook page — thought it was too good to keep private, recording a video of the video to upload.
“The meteor (or alien spaceship) was caught on camera at approximately 0050 hours,” Abbott soon wrote, posting at 3 a.m. “Let’s hope the visitors are friendly.”
By the time Farris woke up Tuesday afternoon, a quarter-million people and counting had watched the video online.
Others captured footage with their own dashboard cameras or with always-on backyard or harbor web cams. “The videos are just fantastic,” said Mike Hankey, operations manager for the American Meteor Society.
The nonprofit society began collecting amateur reports in 1911, by mail. Hankey six years ago designed an app and website to make it easier for spotters to file online.
“The biggest and brightest meteor I’ve ever seen,” wrote Curtis B., of Montague, 90 miles west of Boston. In the other direction, out to sea about 200 nautical miles east of Boston, observer Knickle R. wrote that he was fishing when he saw a green, orange, and yellow burst over the ocean.
Hankey said there is a meteor bright enough to generate 100-plus reports once or twice a month, but a fireball like this that can also be heard is much rarer — with the sound most likely a sonic boom from the meteor’s speed, he said, though possibly also the noise of it bursting apart.
Unlike predictably visible comet-based meteors associated with meteor showers, solitary fireballs originate in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. If they happen to cross paths with the earth, our planet’s atmosphere causes them to suddenly decelerate, “like shooting a bullet into a pool of water,” Hankey said.
NASA’s Near Earth Object Program has recorded 11 meteors of this magnitude since the start of the year, said Christine Pulliam, a spokeswoman for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
Hankey, citing data from NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office and footage captured by Boston University and the University of Western Ontario, said this meteor was about five feet in diameter and weighed 13,000 pounds when it started breaking apart as it hit the earth’s atmosphere. Scientists tracked it moving at 38,900 miles an hour while it streaked above New Hampshire’s White Mountains at an altitude of 52 miles.
It was rapidly shrinking — shedding pieces and giving off light and heat to atmospheric friction — by the time it broke apart over Maine, 28 miles above Upper Richardson Lake.
That might make remnants difficult to find, but it didn’t stop the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum from announcing a $20,000 reward for the first two-pound fragment.
The under-construction museum in Bethel, which has a preview gallery open in advance of a 2017 debut, will focus primarily on Maine’s rich geological deposits — featuring the terrestrial, director Barbra Barrett said, but with a “special exhibit for the extraterrestrial.”
Sightings reported on social media:
Just as I laid my head on the pillow I saw a meteor fall and disintegrate in the northern sky. Amazing!— Mark Leaman (@mleaman) May 17, 2016
At 12:52AM Tuesday I saw a large, bright and low to the ground green/yellow "meteor" with a large white streak fall across my backyard! WOW!— Elaine Ploof (@HopeEP2) May 17, 2016