Monday, February 16, 2009
Not a UFO says FAA
DALLAS — The fireball that blazed across the Texas sky and sparked numerous weekend calls to authorities was probably a meteor and not falling space junk from last week's satellite collision, officials said Monday.
The Federal Aviation Administration said the fireball appeared to be a natural phenomenon, and a University of North Texas astronomer said more specifically that it was probably a pickup truck-sized meteor with the consistency of concrete.
The object was visible Sunday morning from Austin to Dallas and into East Texas. In Central Texas, the Williamson County sheriff's office received so many emergency calls that it sent a helicopter aloft to look for debris from a plane crash.
The FAA backed off its weekend statement that the fireball possibly was caused by falling debris from colliding satellites plummeting into the atmosphere. That assertion was rebuffed Sunday when a major with U.S. Strategic Command said there was no connection to the sightings and last week's collision of satellites from the U.S. and Russia.
The FAA had a weekend warning out to pilots to watch out for satellite debris but rescinded the warning Sunday, FAA spokesman Roland Herwig said.
Herwig acknowledged Monday that "we are no longer saying it might have been satellite debris."
Note: The photo attached to this post is NOT the Texas fireball.
Photo by Dale Stanton
"We suspect a natural phenomenon, but we are not the experts on that," Herwig said.
Preston Starr, the observatory manager at the University of North Texas, said he believes the object was a carbonaceous meteor "about the size of a pickup truck. It was a slow mover, and probably has the consistency of concrete."
Such objects bombard the planet on a daily basis. Objects as large as the one spotted Sunday enter the atmosphere about eight or 10 times a year, Starr said. It was probably moving between 15,000 miles per hour and 40,000 miles per hour and was likely visible for several seconds.
The object was unlikely to be satellite debris, Starr said, because the trajectory was wrong and debris would be too small and too slow for so many to have seen it during the day.
"It would have looked like a blip, and nobody would be able to notice if it were a daytime entry," Starr said.
Starr described the object as a bolide, a term used by astronomers to describe a meteor with an exploding brightness. That's the description given by those who saw the fireball, saying it was reddish orange and left a trail of white smoke.
Starr said it's likely the meteor struck ground somewhere. He doubted it would have left a crater and guessed what's left of it would be smaller than the size of a fist.
Emergency operators in at least six East Texas counties received calls about the object. Several people in the Dallas area reported seeing the meteor. In Williamson County, north of Austin, a sheriff's department helicopter spent 45 minutes searching for a possible plane crash after receiving numerous calls about a fireball.
"That's why we don't have any doubt that what they saw is what they saw. We are fairly certain that whatever happened, happened," said Detective John Foster, a spokesman for the Williamson County sheriff's department. "We believe them. But we couldn't find it. We tried."