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Meteorite Leaves Trail of Fire, Confusion
(CNN) -- A streaking fireball or fireballs witnessed over much of the
United States seems to have disappeared without a trace, save perhaps
strange markings in a Pennsylvania cornfield. A swath of stalks with possible
burn pocks was cordoned off Tuesday, as state environmental authorities
combed the area with radiation detectors.
Space enthusiasts -- including at least one from the air -- tried without
luck to approach the guarded site. Shooting video from a helicopter, Jeramy
Mohler swooped in close to the spot when someone with a megaphone told
to "move away from the contaminated area," he said.
The scene had been abuzz since the early evening before. From Ontario
Virginia, eyewitnesses saw a brilliant, colorful fireball blaze across
sky between 6 and 6:30 p.m. EDT. Some reported hearing a loud sound or
series of sounds akin to sonic booms.
Shortly thereafter, witnesses watching deer near Williamsport, Pennsylvania,
said they saw a fireball fall into the cornfield. A volunteer at the Larry's
Creek Fire Department went to the scene.
"There was an obvious patch, about 25 yards by 50, that was covered
and was knocked down. The corn had bb-like holes in it and some of it
curled," said A.J. Edkin, a department safety officer, recounting
description of her colleague.
But did something really land there and, if so, what? Meteorite fragments
have yet to be recovered. The corn, first described as flattened, scorched
and dusted, had rebounded to an almost pristine condition by the morning.
Air quality and radiation checks turned up nothing. "You're not going
any signs of radiation with a meteorite," said meteorite expert Ron
"People think they are radioactive and they are not." Instead
should look for "dark rocks with dark fusion crust, basically the
burning up in the outer layer of the atmosphere," he said.
"This fireball is a very good candidate for having landed on the
ground as a
meteorite. It has all the classic sounds of a meteorite fall," the
scientist said. So far only a few black singe marks on individual stalks
the hint of
recent turbulence suggested something was amiss. Local emergency personnel
concluded that a meteorite had struck the cornfield. But state authorities
said they were not inclined to pursue an investigation. "Some cornstalks
been blown over, but they don't seem burned. There's not much to look
said Marko Bourne, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management
Agency, on Tuesday. "There are a few (cornstalks) that looked withered.
might have been
totally unrelated to what was traversing the sky last night."
Richard R. Erickson, an astronomy professor at nearby Lycoming College,
thinks there definitely was a connection. "My wife and I heard a
We thought it was a sonic boom of some sort," he said. "I'm
almost certain it
was some kind of meteor." Erickson and other astronomers speculate
speeding meteor pierced the atmosphere, broke into parts as the atmosphere
heated it and slowed it to well under the speed of sound.
Eyewitnesses described the object as large as an SUV or even airplane.
astronomers said the object or its main pieces were most likely much
smaller. "When you have a small object traveling at an incredibly
slamming into the earth's atmosphere, the friction makes the speeding
heat up so much that it can internally fracture and turn into what we
fireball," said Jack Horkheimer, director of the Miami Planetarium.
don't need a big object. Something the size of a golf ball, a baseball,
even a basketball could look as big as a jeep or flaming bus."
Many mysteries remain. Conflicting accounts on the time and direction
fireball have given rise to speculation that more than one space object
stunned onlookers Monday. Most eyewitnesses said the object traveled from
north to the northwest, but at least one said it went from east to west.
many of the sightings could be grouped into one of two distinct time periods
-- just after 6 p.m.
EDT and one between 6:25 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. EDT.
"There are three minor meteor showers going on, one known for slow
but very bright fireballs," said Horkheimer. However, he and other
astronomers leaned toward the lone-meteor theory, attributing eyewitness
inconsistencies to human error.
Another question puzzling astronomers -- did the object or objects land?
There is a good chance that none of the parts survived long enough to
the ground. "I don't think a meteorite per se could scorch the field
that. If it
somehow exploded above the ground, it could have generated a heat pulse
could have scorched the ground," Erickson said. And if they did,
have struck great distances from the cornfield, Baalke added.
Nevertheless, Lycoming County emergency personnel kept the location of
field under wraps to prevent the curious from tromping through the corn.
"We've not given the name of property owner because of the seekers
lookers," Edkin said.
Confused by space rock terms?
A meteoroid is a pebble or stone in space.
A meteor is the bright flash of light that a meteoroid produces as it
across the sky and also refers to the stone itself while in the atmosphere.
A meteorite is a meteor that survives its fiery atmospheric entry and
strikes the Earth's surface.