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Fireball lights up sky and causes jaws to drop


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POSTED: Friday, February 20, 2009

Some people reported seeing a green fireball. Others said it was orange and “;scary.”;

They didn't know what they were looking at about 9 p.m. Feb. 9.

It was a show-stopper for Gregory McCartney, who runs an evening outdoor astronomy education and entertainment program at Ko Olina.

The NASA Solar System ambassador and board member for the University of Hawaii Friends of the Institute for Astronomy Council had about 18 people at a star show that night.

He said they were waiting for Saturn to come into view at about 9:05 p.m. “;when all of a sudden, out of nowhere this streaking bullet of a meteor comes ripping across the sky over the Marriott Beach Club timeshare building (from the east) heading downwards at a 45-degree angle towards the ocean (the west).”;

He was facing north when he saw it, he said, explaining he usually yells out to the crowd when he sees a “;shooting star.”;

“;However, as this meteor came closer to the crowd about two palm trees in height, it suddenly lit up brighter than a full moon as in a glow larger than I'd say a house,”; he wrote in an e-mail. “;I mean, this thing was the largest, brightest meteor I had ever seen.

“;It was literally white hot and amazingly clear white - not like milk color, but more like a glossy brilliance. As it went over a palm tree, this time I instinctively yelled, 'Look out!' as it seemed we were about to be hit.

“;Then it lit up into a brilliant clear blue color for a split second, then a brilliant red and disappeared.”;

McCartney and his clients were not alone in witnessing the heavenly phenomenon. People elsewhere on Oahu and throughout the nation reported seeing similar events.

The Federal Aviation Administration had calls from media across the country asking about flashes in the sky that night, a spokesman said, adding that he believed it was a “;meteorological phenomenon.”;

UH astronomer David Tholen said it possibly was “;a new meteor shower from a clump of cometary material that has not yet dispersed enough to become an annual shower.”;

Barry Peckham, Hawaiian Astronomical Society vice president, said, “;It probably was a fireball. ... You can see that most any night. You just have to be looking up, which very few people do.”;

A fireball is “;just a rock falling to Earth,”; he said. “;It's very bright and lasts anywhere from one second to maybe four seconds at the most. It throws off what would look like sparks, and it makes a tail; sometimes there's a smoke stream that follows it. Very often the head is orange. Very often the tail is green.”;

Peckham said fireballs “;can explode, and then pieces go flying in different directions. And that all happens in just a couple of seconds.”; But they usually disintegrate before hitting the earth, he said.

McCartney said he does not know whether the meteor he saw landed in the sand or the ocean or whether it made it to the ground.

“;It definitely stole Saturn's thunder in ending our show,”; he said. “;At least half the group of folks with me saw this, and everyone was literally stunned and breathless with shocked, frozen smiles on their faces in awe.”;

Joanna Spofford, 32, was walking with her 3-year-old daughter, Journey, in their Kalama Valley neighborhood in Hawaii Kai that night when she saw a green object in the sky.

“;It was the scariest thing in the world,”; she said. “;I thought the world was coming to an end. I never experienced anything similar to that.”;

Spofford said she had read about the Oklahoma fireball, a bright meteor seen Feb. 15 over that state and Texas, but “;this disappeared right in front of us.”;

Mahea Mahiai, 25, said she heard a sound like some electrical short circuit in Kalihi Valley at about 11 that night.

Suddenly she saw “;a bright orange light, like a fireball, kind of, just a glow of orange light, but it happened so fast.”; She thought it fell, hitting the ground or something in the air.

Mahiai said her father told her kahunas are capable of sending out fireballs, “;akulele,”; and wherever one lands, somebody is going to die.

Richard Wainscoat, with the UH Institute for Astronomy, said he had a class on Feb. 11 at Sandy Beach, and the students saw more meteors than usual.

There are no meteor showers this time of year, but sporadic meteors occur year-round that are not associated with any particular shower, he said.

 

Star-Bulletin reporter June Watanabe contributed to this report.