Courtesy American Meteor Society
PENINSULA — A blazing ball burst across the evening sky, surprising Kathy Pearson and her husband, Jeff.
The Ilwaco couple was watching TV at home when they saw a bright, glowing globe with an orange tail flash through the darkness outside their windows that overlook Beards Hollow.
“We both kind of looked at each other like ‘did you see that,’” Kathy Pearson said.
The shining sphere arched across the sky at around 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 24, flying northwest before it dropped below the horizon, she said. Pearson figured it must have been a meteor but couldn’t tell whether it was heading toward land or the ocean.
“You’re just sort of left wondering what you just saw,” she said.
The Pearsons weren’t the only ones left without an explanation after their strange sighting.
Louise Martin Purdin, of Ocean Park, got on Facebook to ask for answers after she saw a “huge white light” traveling across the sky. She said it “looked like it blew up” with yellow and red flames as it went down.
It was likely a fireball, Mike Hankey with American Meteor Society told the Observer.
A meteor is the burst of light given off by a meteoroid or small asteroid as it blasts into the atmosphere. Fireballs are meteors that appear brighter than Venus, according to the nonprofit research society.
The volunteer-dependent group tracks sightings using information from observers. It collected 52 accounts of a fiery light flying across the Pacific Northwest from people in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia.
“This is the largest and brightest object I’ve ever seen streaking across the sky,” a woman in South Bend reported.
Similar sightings spanned the region from as far north as Whistler, B.C. to about 30 miles south of Portland.
Calculations made by the society’s computer program using data from the accounts show the fireball landed somewhere around the northwestern tip of Washington near Neah Bay. Although estimates aren’t exact, Hankey said, they usually come within at least 30 miles.
With dozens of reports from a large swath of the West Coast, he was fairly sure the stunner in the sky was a fireball. It could have been “space junk,” such as the remains of rockets and satellites, too.
NASA now tracks more than half a million pieces of debris circling Earth, according to its website. Traveling at high speeds, even a particle the size of a paint fleck can severely damage spacecraft.
NASA reports an average of one piece of tracked space trash has fallen from the Earth’s orbit each day during the past half century. Most have landed in the oceans or sparsely populated areas, such as the Canadian Tundra, the Australian Outback or Russian Siberia.
Hankey doubts people were seeing space junk on Oct. 24 because it typically moves more slowly and breaks into smaller pieces. If it was debris, he would expect to get reports of lights falling for about 30 seconds, coming from Canada to Southern California. The fiery show lasted three to four seconds for most Northwest skywatchers, he said.
It’s also possible that the fireball was part the Orionids meteor shower. It peaked the weekend before and continues through Nov. 7.
The Orionids, named after the direction from which they appear to radiate near the constellation Orion, produce an average of 15 meteors an hour, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
Hankey said it’s unlikely that the blazing burst was part of the meteor shower. Fireballs come from farther away than the leftover pieces of Halley’s comet that can be seen during the Orionids.
Last week’s reports of the large, radiant flare from skywatchers hundreds of miles apart tell Hankey it came from much higher than the autumn spattering of falling stars.
“Whatever it was people were seeing had to have been on the edge of space,” he said.
Although he can’t say it was a fireball for certain, it was surely quite the sight.
“Never saw something like that before,” Purdin said in her Facebook post after it passed the Peninsula.