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Last week's fireball seen over Minnesota and Manitoba confirmed as same meteor
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06/08/2006 08:17 PM
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Fire in the sky
A bright fireball that blazed over the Northland on Friday night was a once-in-a-lifetime sighting
BY STEVE KUCHERA
NEWS TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
Bob King/News Tribune
A time exposure of a fireball taken during the Leonid meteor shower taken in 2001.
Report a sighting
Quotes from meteor-sighters
The mysterious light seen over the Northland on Friday night was an especially bright meteor seen in at least two states and Canada.
"Anyone who saw it should count themselves as lucky -- they are probably not going to see another one like that in their lifetime," Scott Young said.
Young is an astronomer and manager of the planetarium and science gallery at the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg. The museum is collecting reports of sightings of Friday's fireball, which traveled from south to north over the Northland about 11:35 p.m. Friday.
"We have a couple hundred e-mails, and my receptionist is taking phone calls as quick as they come in," Young said. "I'm sure thousands of people saw it, because it went right over our cottage country area."
Using information from witnesses and the mathematical process of triangulation, the museum hopes to determine the fireball's exact path.
"That intersects the ground at some point, and that's where you go look for pieces," Young said.
If the museum is able to triangulate the fireball's path, it will publish the results so residents can look for its remains. Young believes it likely that parts of the fireball survived their fiery plunge.
"There was a sonic boom heard over the Lake of the Woods area, and that generally means that it has penetrated very low into the atmosphere," he said. "If it does that, then generally pieces can survive."
According to NASA, as many as 4 billion meteors enter the Earth's atmosphere every day, many at speeds about 45 miles per second. Friction with the air causes them to glow. Most meteors are just specks of dust that burn up in a brilliant streak of light.
Fireballs are different. They can weigh pounds -- large enough to illuminate a long path through the sky. Some fireballs, called bolides, explode with a loud, thunderous sound.
Friday's fireball broke into several pieces, witnesses said.
"It broke up into two pieces -- one big ball and one little ball," said Tim Leseman of Eveleth.
Many people who saw Friday's fireball compared it to fireworks traveling horizontally rather than vertically. From any spot, it was visible for as long as 15 seconds.
"Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have been enough time for anyone to take a picture," Young said.
The fireball was seen from places as far afield as Brandon, Manitoba (more than 100 miles west of Winnipeg), northwestern Lake of the Woods (where it appeared to pass directly overhead), Orr, Eveleth, Duluth, the Lake Mille Lacs area and Danbury, Wis.
"Everyone generally thinks it was just over the trees or just over the hills, but when a meteor like this is actually visible, it's usually 20 to 40 kilometers (12 to 25 miles) above the Earth," Young said. "It's way, way up there."
A meteor's chemical makeup and temperature determine what color its glow will be. Many witnesses described Friday's fireball as being green or bluish-green in color (common for a stony meteor), turning to red near the end of its flight.
Chris Magney of Duluth saw the fireball as he walked in the University of Minnesota Duluth area.
"I just looked up, and right there in front of me I saw what looked like a firework," he said. "It was giving off some kind of trail. It wasn't an evenly spaced trail. It was kind of sparking off parts. It looked to be kind of bluish-green."
The fireball was larger than past meteors he's seen.
"This was probably one-eighth or one-tenth the size of the moon -- much larger than any background star," he said. "Just because of the light intensity it must have been pretty hot, whatever it was. It was moving as fast as the shooting stars I've seen."
He watched as it appeared to follow an arc, vanishing over the northwestern horizon.
Leseman was letting his dog out when he happened to look up to the west as the fireball blazed past. It was in sight for perhaps 10 seconds.
"It was the size of the moon and it was moving slowly from south to north," he said. "It was very bright with a long tail, and it looked like it was rolling as if it was burning up.... I got a huge chill watching it."
STEVE KUCHERA can be reached at (218) 279-5503, toll free at (800) 456-8282, or by e-mail at email@example.com.