Uncertainty over 'fireballs' in the sky

Published Saturday, 22 September 2012
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Fireballs were observed by many across Northern Ireland on Friday night, but experts don't agree on the cause of the spectacular display.

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Clear skies allowed a clear view of the fireballs which were witnessed right across the UK, Ireland and even parts of north west Europe.

Bright 'meteor-like' tails could be seen in the sky for approximately two minutes at 10.55pm on Friday night.

Reports of "bright balls of fire with tails of fire" came from across the region, including Belfast, Ballymena, Newtownabbey and Londonderry. Many viewers contacted UTV to describe what they had witnessed.

I stood in amazement as it passed directly overhead, in a SW direction, and realised it had to be a meteor shower. It was literally 50 metres above me, and moving silently. I could see tiny fragments in its trail breaking.

Andrew Seaton in Bangor

Experts are not clear on whether the spectacular show was a space rock burning up or a piece of space junk, such as a piece of satellite or aircraft burning up in the atmosphere.

Dr Andy McCrea, former president of the Irish Astronomical Association, said the display was "spectacular" and "fairly unusual".

He said it was unlikely that it was a meteor shower.

"Meteors are very tiny objects, about the size of a grain of sand and they enter the atmosphere at high speed and burn up very quickly and that's what gives you the sort of shooting star," he said.

"A meteor shower happens over a prolonged period of maybe several hours sometimes- this was most likely a single large body which was breaking up going through the atmosphere."

"The two possibilities could be, one, it could be a large piece of rock from space," he explained. "Or it could have been space debris, that is a satellite or piece of space material, burning up in the atmosphere as it returns to earth."

I was driving along the Lisneveagh Road from Ballymena towards Antrim and as I looked out my left window, I saw several fiery objects approaching high and fast … The only conclusion I can draw from this is that there was a small asteroid that grazed the earth's atmosphere!

Peter Moore in Kells

Professor Mark Bailey from Armagh Observatory, is not so certain that the objects could be disregarded as 'space junk', and noted that there have been no reports of the object landing.

He said they have received hundreds of reports of the fireballs and his suggestion is that Friday's display could have been "a small near-Earth asteroid" that happened to "graze the Earth's atmosphere".

Professor Bailey said this has happened before, notably the great meteor of 18 August 1783 and a meteor procession in 9 February 1913.

"Several people describe hearing rumbling sounds, like distant thunder, or a booming sound, which would have been the sonic-boom effects of the object's supersonic passage through the Earth's upper atmosphere," he told UTV.

At 10.55pm I heard something and looked up. I thought someone was sending off fireworks but these ones did not fizzle out. There were bright balls of fire with tails of fire … Amazing sight and so low on a starry night. Guess they are meteorites.

Thomas Corbett in Ballyholme

"One local report describes hearing the sound of objects actually landing close to them, and these people collected some stony fragments which might be associated meteorites from the event," Professor Bailey added.

"Whatever the origin of the object, it is certainly very unusual in moving so very slowly- ie almost as slow as an object orbiting the Earth- and in travelling east to west at such a slow speed."

"Some people have suggested that, rather than being a part of an asteroid this might have been a piece of man-made space debris re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, but from what I can gather and it's still too early to be sure, this would seem a less-likely explanation than the small near-Earth asteroid alternative."

Professor Bailey said that the mystery could be solved if anyone with footage of the fireballs from a fixed camera (CCTV etc.) provides it to experts, then the direction of travel can be determined- which will help determine if the objects were extra-terrestrial or in earth's orbit.

© UTV News
Comments Comments
20 Comments
M.BELFAST in BELFAST wrote (564 days ago):
DID NOT THINK I WOULD LAUGH TODAY BUT J FROM ANTRIM AND HIS POSTING RE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS WAS HILARIOUS THANK YOU J
S.B. in Belfast wrote (569 days ago):
This is 2012 and there have been many predictions that this year would bring a lot of terrestrial activity culminating around December 21st. Some may laugh but is this a precursor to even more stranger things about to come? The fact that the 'experts' cant agree on what this was should make us all think! Niburu and Planet X spring to mind and those who don't know what they are should look them up on the internet.
Jim in Bangor wrote (570 days ago):
"It was literally 50 metres above me" What an idiot.
Linda in NI wrote (570 days ago):
omg orange fire balls going over the sky, did the sky's get permission to do so should have re-routed then from Northern Ireland skies in case they caused offence maybe McDonnell will even lodge a complaint at Stormont.
A in cookstown wrote (570 days ago):
I did see that last night but its not my first time seeing it. its like shootings stars there rare but i have seen so many But 2 me it did look like a metro but tbh i didn't know whats it was my dad also saw it in England
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