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A fireball was spotted over Mass. on Wednesday night. Here’s what experts say it was

Meteor spotted in Central Massachusetts
Courtesy Gerry Bourgeois

If you saw something flash across the sky Wednesday night, you’re not alone.

Residents in Massachusetts reported on social media seeing a fireball streak through the heavens just after 11 p.m.

One witness in Central Massachusetts posted a video on Twitter and said “#UFO #meteor just seen in the sky in Central MA.”

Another witness in Newton said on Twitter: “The front door camera just caught this. Meteor?”

The American Meteor Society reported at least 256 sightings of the fireball between North Carolina and Maine on Wednesday night.

The flying debris was probably an asteroid or a chunk of a comet that skimmed along the Earth’s atmosphere at a high altitude, making it visible from New England to North Carolina, said Meers Oppenheim, a professor of astronomy at Boston University.

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“They’re fairly unusual, these Earth-skimming events, and they’re spectacular,” Oppenheim said in a phone interview Thursday. “Something big enough to be seen all the way from North Carolina to Massachusetts — that’s pretty rare.”

The astronomer said he hadn’t seen the fireball as it streaked across the sky, but judging by videos of the object, it might have been an asteroid chunk that wound up in a strange orbit because of a collision — which could have taken place millions of years ago — “and eventually it found its way into our atmosphere.”

Space debris enters the Earth’s atmosphere constantly, with approximately 1 million objects arriving each second, but most are no bigger than a grain of sand and don’t actually enter the lower atmosphere or strike the surface, Oppenheim said.

Those few objects large enough to be visible are usually smaller than the meteor seen Wednesday, he added.

“The small ones are what we typically see,” he said. “Ones this big are rare.”

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Larger, brighter meteors are called “bolides,” he said, offering the example of a huge meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013, injuring hundreds and damaging buildings.

A much earlier meteor brought destruction to that region.

“A huge fireball hit during World War I in Russia and blasted a 40-kilometer-diameter zone, just obliterated it,” he said. “Fortunately it was in Siberia, in an unpopulated area. If something like that were to happen in the US, it would be devastating.”

Observers who spot a glowing streak in the sky shouldn’t worry — most of the time.

Oppenheim called meteor damage a “rare risk” and said the likelihood of being affected is “not zero, but it’s not huge . . . on the scale of risks, lightning is much worse.”

“It’s just part of the space environment, and the Earth is not separate from that environment,” he said. “It gets people to look up, and everybody should look up because we really are a part of something much bigger.”

The meteor society did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

A viewer in Auburn said the fireball was light blue, with a glowing trail in the same color, and it appeared to be so close by that it made her nervous, according to a report filed in the society’s log of the astronomical event.

An observer in Harwich told the society the “object was larger than anything I have seen before. It was moving much slower than other meteorites I have seen, appeared to be flaming, and had a tail somewhat like a comet. It moved roughly from east to west, and I wondered if it might land in Cape Cod Bay.”

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A Methuen viewer said she saw a ball of dark green trailed by a green line, with a piece of the object breaking off as it flew through the sky.


Abbi Matheson can be reached at abbi.matheson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AbbiMatheson. Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.