Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

What is that bright light? A space ship?

Rebecca Falcon had just dropped her 10-year-old off at Brusly Upper Elementary and was headed north on River Road to the Baton Rouge airport when the flash caught her eye. The white streak above the new Mississippi River Bridge kind of looked like a shooting star, she said, but it was so quick she wasn’t sure. “I asked my husband, ‘Did you see that?’ and he was like, ‘No. What?'” Falcon recalled. Riding with her to the airport, her husband had looked down at his phone. It wasn’t until later Wednesday morning at the Metropolitan Airport waiting for her plane that she found social media and other online posts and realized that she had, in fact, seen what she thought she saw: a fireball.

A fireball? What is that?

Fireballs are meteors that glow brighter than the planet Venus, which is the brightest object in the night sky other than the moon. Christopher Kersey, the longtime manager of the Highland Road Park Observatory, said fireballs happen when meteoroids hit the Earth’s upper atmosphere and the kinetic energy and friction cause the bright streak of light. “But most fireballs don’t result in meteorites landing on the ground. The little piece of space debris usually burns up completely,” Kersey said. Founded in 1911, the nonprofit American Meteor Society tracks fireballs worldwide and has created an online Fireball Log to track sightings. Falcon was one of 46 eyewitnesses in the United States who reported seeing the fireball about 6:55 a.m. or 6:56 a.m. Wednesday, the society’s log shows. Based on the society’s metrics, any fireball with at least 30 reported sightings is considered a “major event.”

This Fireball was seen over a large part of the south and south west.

Wednesday’s fireball had reported sightings stretching as far east as Alabama, as far west as eastern Texas and Oklahoma, and as far north as northwestern Missouri. Several of the sightings reported to the society appear to track the Mississippi River. Viewers shared one video of the fireball in Joplin, Missouri. Eleven sightings were in Louisiana, including several in the Baton Rouge area and others in Hammond, Mandeville and Terrytown, the society log says. In Louisiana and southern Mississippi, witnesses reported the fireball lasting from 1.5 to 3.5 seconds and appearing with various colors, from white as Falcon saw to blue, dark green and even pink. “Was not your regular shooting star,” one commenter from Brusly who is not Falcon reported to the society. “Appeared to be a mass with a very bright glowing blue tail. Absolutely beautiful!” “Glow that went from blue to white and disappeared,” another commenter from Walker told the society. “It was so amazing! Never in my life have I seen something more beautiful!!! As bright as when a person is welding is the best way I can explain it,” reported a commenter from Tylertown, Mississippi, which is not far north of Kentwood and Franklinton, La.

Even some of the cameras that are designed to capture these events did not.

Steven Tilley, who is president of the Baton Rouge Astronomical Society, said he didn’t happen to see the fireball nor did the seven sky cameras he also operates to track fireballs. They had their view blocked by trees and the brightening morning sky, he said. But both he and Kersey believe the sightings were of a fireball of some kind. Kersey speculated that the Orionid meteor shower, which peaked on Oct. 21 and was one of three meteor showers active this past week, may have caused the fireball based on the reported position in the sky. The meteors from the Orionid shower, which is the result of space debris left by Halley’s Comet, appear to emanate from the Orion constellation in the southwestern sky. Viewers looking north reported seeing the Wednesday fireball fall from the left to the right.

This was not the first sighting as others were seen earlier.

Sightings of three other major fireballs were reported this past week in the United States, one in the West on Monday, in the Northeast on Wednesday and in the Midwest and Canada on Thursday, the meteor society says. According to the society website, several thousand meteors of fireball magnitude happen every day, but most are either masked by daylight or happen over oceans or uninhabited areas where they aren’t seen. Falcon, a 34-year-old shipping logistics manager, was on her way back to Baton Rouge from a Nashville, Tennessee, work conference on Friday, as she recalled her experience with the fireball two days earlier. The experience happened too quickly — and while she was driving — to shoot a photograph or video, she said, but she remembers that flash of light in the dawn sky. “I had really good view of it,” she said. An attempt to reach the society by phone Friday was unsuccessful.

Had I seen it I would have had no idea of who to notify.

Bright light in Baton Rouge