As the sun was about to set along the west coast of the United States on Wednesday evening, some people reported seeing a mysterious light in the sky. During an average—read: busy—commute, many drivers throughout the Bay Area reported seeing a key-shaped cloud or a strange question mark or a mysterious bright light.
The University of California-operated observatory, in San Jose, posted on its Facebook page “A bright meteor was visible in the skies over the Bay Area shortly after sunset…leaving a bright trail that was visible for many minutes in the western sky.”
While many social media posts theorized about the odd sighting, scientists at the Lick Observatory in Mount Hamilton (among others) have confirmed this phenomenon was simply a bolide meteor.
San Jose State University professor of Physics and Astronomy, Aaron Romanowsky congratulations the citizen science effort, a practice in which ordinary people use technology to report or record scientific events. He goes on to explain that the fireball everyone reported was like “a giant version of a shooting star.” He adds that shooting stars show only very small streaks of light across the sky.
The meteor did have a tail, but its brilliance had a little help with the sunset, which backlit the scene and caused an unusual sight. The mystery was also helped by the fact that the meteor’s movement changed its direction from a streak to a curvy shape, affected by high winds in the upper atmosphere.
As we would hope, the American Meteor Society also weighed in on the event. On Thursday morning, the organization posted to its Twitter page that it had received at least 120 reports about the incident. 45 photos were also shared to the agency, allowing them to study the event from three states of viewpoint.
Indeed, incidents were reported throughout Nevada and Oregon, but the vast majority of sightings came from Northern California. The American Meteor Society confirms that the streaking object traveled from the northeast to the southwest, eventually ending “somewhere in the Pacific Ocean in front of the San Francisco Bay.”
Now, it is important to note that while bolide meteors are pretty common, they are also very unpredictable; that’s why nobody anticipated its visibility. Elinor Gates of Lick Observatory comments, “There are sporadic meteors. They’re not predictable and they just happen, and they’re just really exciting when you see them.”