The Weird Thing About the Fireball That Just Flashed Over Seattle

The long-lived fireball through Washington's sky was likely a meteor, but it didn't act like one.

A strange-acting meteor, or something similar, flew over Washington state at 9:54 p.m. Saturday evening — creating a fireball that was seen as far south as Eugene, Oregon, and as far north as Enderby, British Columbia.

More than 600 people so far have reported spotting the fireball to the American Meteor Society, a private scientific organization that tracks fireball sightings. And their reports, along with two videos that have emerged, paint a picture of a fairly unusual meteor event.

“Right now I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that it was a meteor,” said Mike Hankey, operations manager for the AMS.

“I’m more like 95 percent certain.”

That’s because the meteor moved a lot more slowly than you’d typically expect from a rock slamming into the atmosphere after eons of hurtling through outer space. The most complete video of the event (which you can see a GIF of at the top of this article) shows the fireball hanging in the sky for about 13 seconds.

When that happens, Hankey said, it’s usually for one of two reasons: Either a meteor entered Earth’s atmosphere at a very low angle, so it crossed through a lot of air before disintegrating or skipping back out into space, or it wasn’t a meteor at all. Satellites, rocket boosters, and other space trash put into orbit by humans sometimes falls to Earth, and those events can look like long fireballs.

“Now, that is monitored pretty well,” Hankey said, “and they have a schedule of, like, ‘This is expected to re-enter in this date at this place.’ And there were no rescheduled re-entries.”

A heatmap shows where reports of the fireball came from and the approximate path of the likely meteor.

American Meteor Society

That weirdness has already lead some of the more eccentric corners of the internet to speculate that the fireball was no meteor, but instead part of a secret military response to escalating nuclear tensions with North Korea. This is speculation, and there’s no reason that Inverse or the AMS has seen to believe it to be true.

Hankey told Inverse that while he has no definite proof, the videos that he’s seen show a fireball that looks a lot like a particularly slow-moving meteor that entered the atmosphere at a high angle.

Like most fireballs visible from the ground, this one disintegrated or skipped back into space before crossing below the 20-kilometer threshold of weather radar. So there’s no direct radar data available. It didn’t create a sonic boom audible from the ground, which faster-moving fireballs often do.

It did, however, create a pretty spectacular light show on the ground, which is partly visible in the video below.

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