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How a Boomerang Meteor Amazed Viewers on Two Continents

Meteorides, the actual space objects that leaving burning meteor trails upon entering our atmosphere, aren’t uncommon. However, a meteoride producing a bright fireball, or bolide, is a rare occurrence. On September 21, Dirk Ross, a tracker of bright...
October 4, 2012, 2:59am

Meteorides, the actual space objects that leaving burning meteor trails upon entering our atmosphere, aren’t uncommon. However, a meteoride producing a bright fireball, or bolide, is a rare occurrence. On September 21, Dirk Ross, a tracker of bright meteors, noted 564 reports of a powerful bolide that broke apart over the U.K. and West Europe.

Then things got strange: According to Sky and Telescope, a couple hours later Ross recorded 126 sightings of a similar fireball over southeastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. Could it really have been two fireballs in one night?

Warning: video NSFW due to lots of f-bombs being dropped

Well, according to Finnish mathematician Esko Lyytinen, the truth might be even stranger. By his calculations, the meteoroid that entered over the U.K. likely weighed a few metric tons or more. As it entered the atmosphere at an extremely low velocity, fragments broke off, some of which were caught by the Earth’s gravity and carried through the atmosphere to burn up over America.

“It looks now that the fireball witnessed 155 minutes later in US and Canada, may have been one fragment of the British fireball, most probably the biggest one. This was its second entry into the Earth`s atmosphere,” Lyytinen said. “If so, this is very rare observation, but it needs to be confirmed.”

The above graphic from Kottke helps illustrate what likely happened: Rather than approach the Earth at a perpendicular angle, the meteoroid in question was angled just enough to graze the Earth’s atmosphere. As it broke up, that shallow angle was further altered by gravity, which caused the meteoroid fragments to slingshot around the Earth. That slow descent is also what caused the extremely long meteor trails reported by eyewitnesses. How cool is that?

Top image of a different bolide by Howard Edin

Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead