'Fireball' Lights Up Midwest Sky Wednesday night, a bright light shot across the Midwestern sky. Reports of a fireball were called into police departments in several states. The incident coincided with a meteor shower, but it could have also been a comet or space junk. To find out what it was, Robert Siegel talks with Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office.
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'Fireball' Lights Up Midwest Sky

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'Fireball' Lights Up Midwest Sky

'Fireball' Lights Up Midwest Sky

'Fireball' Lights Up Midwest Sky

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Wednesday night, a bright light shot across the Midwestern sky. Reports of a fireball were called into police departments in several states. The incident coincided with a meteor shower, but it could have also been a comet or space junk. To find out what it was, Robert Siegel talks with Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office.

See a video of the "fireball" on NPR's Two-Way blog:

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now, the big show in the sky last night over the Midwest. Shortly after 10 p.m. Central Time, people in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, also Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Indiana and Michigan reported seeing a bright light streaking across the sky. Some described it as a huge fireball. We're going to hear from some witnesses now, starting with Kim Kenitz(ph), who's a first responder in Avoca, Wisconsin.

Ms. KIM KENITZ: My girlfriend Brenda and I were coming back from our refresher first responder class. We started coming into the town of Cobb and we were just, I mean, casually talking and all of a sudden, the town just started getting light. And I'm, like, oh my gosh, this town has got really good light.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KENITZ: And then all of a sudden it just started getting greener and greener, like somebody just turned a button to turn up the color of green in the sky. And all of a sudden we just see this big, huge ball of fire. And it looked like, actually, it looked like a Roman candle. And my girlfriend said, no, it was a shooting star. And I'm, like, no, that is not a shooting star, that's a meteorite. And she's, like, well, it's the same difference.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, we'll hear more about what it was in a moment. Kimberly Kenitz, thanks a lot for describing that for us.

Ms. KENITZ: Thank you.

SIEGEL: On to Pete Pokran(ph) in Madison, Wisconsin. What were you doing last night?

Mr. PETE POKRAN: I happened to be lucky enough to be out walking my dog about 10:00. And I saw a flash and I looked up and noticed that the sky to the west almost looked blue. I mean, it looked like daylight. And I saw basically the same bright green flickering object. There were, like, sparks seeming to come off of it. And then there were a couple of bright flashes and it broke into several pieces. I could see three specific orange pieces in kind of a triangular formation. And they continued on for maybe five or 10 seconds and then appeared to burn out.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Pokran, thanks so much for telling us what you saw last night. And we're going to now ask Bill Cook, whose business is, how do you describe it - space rocks?

Mr. BILL COOK: That's correct.

SIEGEL: At NASA, at the Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama. What did they see? What was it?

Mr. COOK: Well, what they saw was definitely a meteor, a bright meteor. We call them bolide. I checked with Fratcom and it was definitely not a reentry of space junk. So what they saw was natural. And based on our initial energy estimates, it was a rock probably about a yard across that skimmed across the atmosphere and broke up.

SIEGEL: Just a yard across and bringing that much light with it.

Mr. COOK: Yes. We're not done with analysis, but right now our initial energy estimates put it at about 100 tons of TNT.

SIEGEL: What would've happened had it gone straight down? Or would it have broken apart if it had gone straight through?

Mr. COOK: Meteors this small typically are broken apart. This one, if you look at what information we have, Doppler radar picked up pieces of this meteorite descending. So you actually got echoes on Doppler radar which showed a trail. And those are tiny particles of this meteorite after it broke apart, descending to the ground.

SIEGEL: So, does that mean that there really is no place where we would find the impact of this meteorite on Earth because it broke up or is there some place where at least a big rock hit the Earth last night?

Mr. COOK: There are no craters, but I guarantee you there are little pieces of meteorite scattered on the ground somewhere in Wisconsin. But no really big piece, no smoking crater.

SIEGEL: You're just covering up the Martian spacecraft, aren't you?

Mr. COOK: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Okay. Well, thanks very much. Bill Cook from the Marshall Space Center, NASA's Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama. And you can watch a couple of video clips of that meteor shooting across the Wisconsin sky at our Web site, NPR.org.

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