What was the massive fireball that shot across the U.K.’s sky?

Clearing the heavens of space junk

Hundreds of people across the United Kingdom had front-row seats to an exciting mystery that literally went right over their heads on Wednesday night. A massive fireball shot across the sky, puzzling hundreds of people across Scotland, Ireland and England. 

The fast-moving fireball was caught on several cameras at around 10 p.m. local time. Some witnesses described it as looking green while videos showed it surrounded by a wide-ranging flashing aura as it bolted across the clouds.  

For Steve Owens, an astronomer and science communicator at the Glasgow Science Centre, the sighting was “incredible,” he told BBC. 

“I was sitting in my living room at exactly 22:00 and I saw out of the widow due south this brilliant fireball – this meteor – streaking across the sky,” he told the outlet. “I could tell it was something special. I could see through broken cloud that it was fragmenting – breaking apart with little bits coming off it.” 

The UK Meteor Network, a citizen science group that uses 170 detection cameras to capture meteors and fireballs across the U.K., said it received nearly 800 reports of the fireball. The International Meteor Organization received more than 1,000. 

The IMO believes its trajectory began in a triangle between Northern Ireland, Isle of Man and northern England and traveled north and slightly west, before ending up somewhere over the North Atlantic Ocean.

Researchers initially said they didn’t think the object was a meteor based on its speed and other observations. Some questioned whether it belongs to Elon Musk’s SpaceX, although that has not been verified, and according to astronomer Jonathan McDowell, is not likely based on the fireball’s trajectory. 

“No evidence of a Starlink or other space debris reentry over the UK at that time,” McDowell said. He also said that it was slower than normal meteors, though not completely out of regular range, “but too fast for a satellite.” 

The UK Meteor Network said the fireball lasted for about 20 seconds, “which is relatively slow for a meteor but consistent with space debris.” Owens had told BBC that meteors or shooting stars tend to be “tiny little streaks of light lasting a fraction of a second.” 

But later on Thursday, the network said that the fireball was “definitely a meteor.” 

“It came on an asteroidal orbit and entered the atmosphere at 14.2 km/s [8.8 miles per second],” the network said. “The observed portion of the trajectory covered over 300 km [186 miles]. If any meteorites did fall, they ended up in the ocean.” 

Li Cohen

Li Cohen is a social media producer and trending reporter for CBS News, focusing on social justice issues.

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