Spotting Sporadic Meteors, Fireballs, and Bolides

By Stephen P. Maran

When you’re outdoors on a dark night and see a “shooting star” (the flash of light from a random, falling meteoroid), what you’re probably seeing is a sporadic meteor. But if many meteors appear, all seeming to come from the same place among the stars, you’re witnessing a meteor shower. Meteor showers are among the most enjoyable sights in the heavens.

A dazzlingly bright meteor is a fireball. Although a fireball has no official definition, many astronomers consider a meteor that looks brighter than Venus to be a fireball. However, Venus may not be visible at the time you see the bright meteor. So how can you decide whether you’re seeing a fireball?

Here’s a rule for identifying fireballs: If people facing the meteor all say “Ooh” and “Ah” (everyone tends to shout when they see a bright meteor), the meteor may be just a bright one. But if people who are facing the wrong way see a momentary bright glow in the sky or on the ground around them, it’s the real thing. To paraphrase an old Dean Martin tune, when the meteor hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s a fireball!

Fireballs aren’t very rare. If you watch the sky regularly on dark nights for a few hours at a time, you’ll probably see a fireball about twice a year. But daylight fireballs are very rare. If the Sun is up and you see a fireball, mark it down as a lucky sighting. You’ve seen one tremendously bright fireball. When nonscientists see daytime fireballs, they almost always mistake them for an airplane or missile on fire and about to crash.

Any very bright fireball (approaching the brightness of the half Moon or brighter) or any daylight fireball represents a possibility that the meteoroid producing the light will make it to the ground. Freshly fallen meteorites are often of considerable scientific value, and they may be worth good money, too. If you see a fireball that fits this description, write down all the following information so your account can help scientists find the meteorite and determine where it came from:

  1. Note the time, according to your watch.

    At the earliest opportunity, check how fast or slow your watch is running against an accurate time source, such as the Master Clock at the U.S. Naval Observatory. If you have a smartphone, it should give you the time accurate at least to the minute.
  2. Record exactly where you are.

    If you have a Global Positioning System receiver handy (or a smartphone with a GPS app, such as Compass on the iPhone), take a reading of your latitude and longitude. Otherwise, make a simple sketch showing where you stood when you saw the fireball — note roads, buildings, big trees, or any other landmarks.
  3. Make a sketch of the sky, showing the track of the fireball with respect to the horizon as you saw it.

    Even if you’re not sure whether you faced southeast or north-northwest, a sketch of your location and the fireball track helps scientists determine the trajectory of the fireball and where the meteoroid may have landed.

After a daylight fireball or a very bright nighttime fireball, interested scientists advertise for eyewitnesses. They collect the information, and by comparing the accounts of persons who viewed the fireball from different locations, they can close in on the area where it most likely fell to the ground. Even a brilliant fireball may be only the size of a small stone — one that would fit easily in the palm of your hand — so scientists need to narrow the search area to have a reasonable chance of finding it. If you don’t see a call for information after your fireball observation, chances are good that the nearest planetarium or natural history museum will accept your report and know where to send it. Or report your fireball observation to the American Meteor Society — just look for the prominent “Report a Fireball” link on their home page.

A bolide is a fireball that explodes or produces a loud noise even if it doesn’t break apart. Some people use bolide interchangeably with fireball. (You won’t find an official agreement on this term; you can find different definitions in even the most authoritative sources.) The noise you hear is the sonic boom from the meteoroid, which is falling through the air faster than the speed of sound.

When a fireball breaks apart, you see two or more bright meteors at once, very close to each other and heading the same way. The meteoroid that produces the fireball has fragmented, probably from aerodynamic forces, just as an airplane falling out of control from high altitude sometimes breaks apart even though it hasn’t exploded.

Often a bright meteor leaves behind a luminous track. The meteor lasts a few seconds or less, but the shining track — or meteor train — may persist for many seconds or even minutes. If it lasts long enough, it becomes distorted by the high-altitude winds, just as the wind gradually deforms the skywriting from an airplane above a beach or stadium.

You see more meteors after midnight local time than before because, from midnight to noon, you’re on the forward side of Earth, where our planet’s plunge through space sweeps up meteoroids. From noon to midnight, you’re on the backside, and meteoroids have to catch up in order to enter the atmosphere and become visible. The meteors are like bugs that splatter on your auto windshield. You get many more on the front windshield as you drive down the highway than on the rear windshield because the front windshield is driving into bugs and the rear windshield is driving away from bugs.