Bright fireball meteor explodes over Florida Monday night

Scott Sutherland
·4 min read
Bright fireball meteor explodes over Florida Monday night
Bright fireball meteor explodes over Florida Monday night

Floridians were treated to a fantastic sight on Monday night, as a bright fireball blazed across the sky and then exploded with a brilliant flash of light.

At around 10:20 p.m. ET on April 12, 2021, our planet had an extremely close encounter with a small space rock on its journey around the Sun. Swept up by Earth's atmosphere, this meteoroid plunged towards the surface, lighting up the sky as it did.

Florida-Fireball-stack-Apr12-2021-Joseph-Gresham-AMS
Florida-Fireball-stack-Apr12-2021-Joseph-Gresham-AMS

This image combines 30 frames from a video shot on the night of April 12, 2021, from Lakeland, FL, just to the southwest of Orlando. It captures the entire path of the fireball that flashed over the area, from beginning to just before it filled the horizon with light as it exploded. Video credit: Joseph Gresham

As of Tuesday afternoon, the American Meteor Society has collected 230 witness reports from the event, from people across the entire Florida peninsula, the Bahamas and even central Georgia. The exceptionally clear skies over the U.S. Southeast on Monday night would have guaranteed a perfect view for anyone who happened to be looking in the right direction at the time.

By compiling all of these reports and comparing each witness's account of the fireball location and direction of travel, AMS scientists can estimate where it happened. With these fireballs typically occurring very high up in the atmosphere — 30 to 50 kilometres above the surface — it's tough for individual witnesses to accurately judge the meteor's trajectory. The more reports they get, however, the more accurate the AMS estimate will be.

AMS-Fireball-Map-Apr122021
AMS-Fireball-Map-Apr122021

The event map from the American Meteor Society shows the likely trajectory of this fireball. Credit: AMS

This meteor's estimated trajectory puts it travelling from south to north, out over the Atlantic Ocean, about 60-70 kilometres northeast of West Palm Beach.

According to the International Meteor Organization, no major annual meteor showers are happening right now. The next meteor shower is the Lyrids, which begins on April 16 and peaks on the night of April 21-22. This particular fireball was likely a sporadic meteor — one not associated with a known meteor shower.

SEEN FROM SPACE

This fireball was not only bright enough to be seen by witnesses from hundreds of kilometres around, but its explosive flash was also seen from space.

The Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) instrument, on board the GOES-16 geosynchronous weather satellite, routinely monitors cloud-tops for lightning strikes. This sensor will also pick up any other flash of light in its view if that flash is bright enough.

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Florida-Fireball-Insert-20211030220 GOES16-GLM-CONUS-EXTENT-1250x750

The continental view of GOES-16's Geostationary Lightning Mapper picked up the fireball flash at 10:20 p.m. ET on April 12 (02:20 UTC, April 13). The inset image shows a close-up view of the area. Credit: CIRA/NOAA

In this case, the GLM picked up the fireball explosion in almost the exact spot that the AMS estimated.

Given that this meteor flashed over water, if any meteorites actually survived the passage through Earth's atmosphere, they will be on the bottom of the ocean now.

Read more: Got your hands on a space rock? Here's how to know for sure!

WHAT'S GOING ON HERE?

Out in space, there are likely millions of tiny bits of rock and ice and dust floating around the Sun. These are all leftover pieces from the formation of the solar system over 4.5 billion years ago. As they orbit the Sun, these meteoroids travel at speeds of tens to hundreds of thousands of kilometres per hour. So, if their path happens to intercept Earth, they plunge into the atmosphere at high speed.

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Meteoroid-Meteor-Meteorite-Fireball-Bolide-NASA-ROM-GoogleEarth-SSutherland

As the meteoroid encounters air molecules in its path, it compresses those molecules together. This slows the meteoroid down, and if it compresses the air hard enough, that air will glow. This is the 'meteor' flash that we see.

If these meteoroids are tiny, such as microscopic dust grains, we may not notice them at all. If something more significant — the size of a grain of sand up to a pebble or even larger — passes over places we inhabit, though, they are much more noticeable. The larger and faster-moving the meteoroid is, the brighter the resulting meteor will be. Brighter ones are referred to as fireballs, while the brightest (which usually involve the meteoroid exploding during flight) are often called bolides.

The meteors' colour depends on a few different factors, such as the concentration of gases compressed by the meteoroid and the minerals and metals found in the meteoroid itself.

If a meteoroid is large enough and moving slowly enough as it makes its plunge through the atmosphere, pieces of it can reach the ground intact. If we find these, we call them meteorites.