Saturday, February 25, 2012

Fires in the Sky: NASA Investigates Fireballs of February Phenomenon

On St. Valentine's Day Eve, something disturbed the animal population of rural Portal, Georgia. Deep in the night, cows began to moo nervously, dogs and coyotes began to howl and other woodland creatures scurried about the local forest in fear. What caused the nocturnal commotion? A brilliant and large meteor streaking through Earth's atmosphere and burning up in the nighttime skies!

"At 1:43 AM Eastern, I witnessed an amazing fireball,"  Portal resident Henry Strickland told local media. "It was very large and lit up half the sky as it fragmented. The event set dogs barking and upset cattle, which began to make excited sounds. I regret I didn't have a camera; it lasted nearly 6 seconds."

The meteor shows are a common event. Dubbed "The Fireballs of February" by NASA,  the fireballs have become a source of mystery for scientists and other sky-watchers around the world. The space agency has been monitoring the annual event for the past 50 years and have reached the conclusion that the unusual February showers are different from other meteor showers throughout the year, but are unclear on the reason why. 

"These fireballs are particularly slow and penetrating," explains meteor expert Peter Brown, a physics professor with the University of Western Ontario in Canada. "They hit the top of the atmosphere moving slower than 15 km/s, decelerate rapidly, and make it to within 50 km of Earth’s surface." The start of the yearly spectacle was noted on February 1, when a brilliant fireball streaking across the sky was witnessed by thousands in Dallas, Texas.

The fireball was bright enough to be seen on NASA cameras located in New Mexico more than 500 miles away. "It was about as bright as the full Moon," says Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Agency. Based on the NASA imagery and other observations, Cooke estimates that the object was 1 to 2 meters in diameter.

So, look to the skies over the next few nights, and you might catch the free spectacle.

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