Fireball’s ‘spectacular’ effect Wednesday was rare, says NASA expert

The meteor that left a stunning visual in the sky landed about 50 miles out from Half Moon Bay, an astronomer says.

A bright meteor left a rare loopy light in Wednesday’s evening sky, as seen from Telegraph and Alcatraz. Photo: Jennifer Lazo

Wednesday evening’s eerie light in the sky was not a rocket launch or Santa riding his sleigh, but a meteor plunging into the Pacific Ocean, a NASA expert confirmed Thursday afternoon.

Meteor astronomer Peter Jenniskens said he, like many people in Berkeley, was “very excited” to witness the “spectacular” phenomenon around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

It is “fairly rare” for such events to occur right at twilight, when dust particles can linger in “broad sunlight,” creating the bright, squiggly cloud-like effect visible from Berkeley, Jenniskens said on a phone interview. The loopy pattern was the result of the wind changing direction and speed as the rock moved through the atmosphere, about 30 miles up.

“We’re just setting up more cameras in California to try to capture these events,” said the NASA and SETI Institute researcher.

“The current understanding is most of these rocks are coming from the asteroid belt. The question is, where in the asteroid belt?” Jenniskens said. “Then we have to find the meteorite. If a rock comes into the atmosphere, it breaks into pieces and scatters.”

Those bits of space rock can land about five miles apart from each other, Jenniskens said. That means any remnants of Wednesday night’s event are somewhere about 50 miles out past Half Moon Bay.

Video below by David Jacobowitz:

But do some digging around if the next fireball falls over land.

“One could be sitting in your backyard. Or one could have fell through roof. We really like people to be on the lookout,” Jenniskens said.

The astronomer encouraged anyone who witnesses or documents a meteor to report the sighting to the American Meteor Society. The crowd-sourced firsthand reports, along with images from NASA and cellphone cameras, can help scientists determine the origin and destination of these events.

 “We’re still at the very beginning of this research,” Jenniskens said.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously a reporter for Berkeleyside. Email: Twitter: .