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Fire in the sky

Adam Jensen
ajensen@tahoedailytribune.com
Photo by Lisa WarrenReno resident Lisa Warren took this photo of the meteor Sunday morning as she was walking her dogs.
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While a meteor that streaked over California and Nevada this weekend may have sounded like it landed at the South Shore, the fireball likely broke up somewhere south of the Lake Tahoe Basin, according to sky watchers.

Residents reported hearing a loud sonic boom from the meteor about 8 a.m. Sunday.

Several witnesses reported seeing the meteor land just over the next ridge, but the object exploded somewhere over Tuolumne County in California, said Dan Ruby, associate director of the Fleischmann Planetarium in Reno.



He said the fireball was visible from Emmett, Idaho, in the north to Bakersfield, Calif., in the south, and as far east as Elko.

“Everyone thinks it just landed over the next ridge,” he said. “People can’t judge distances. Nobody saw it hit, but people did see a big flash at the end and there was no record of any seismic activity.”




Ruby said that, had the meteor hit the ground, it would have made some sort of noise. He said scientists estimate the meteor broke up 5-10 miles above the Sierra and was likely just “a little bigger than a washing machine.”

Astronomers said they believe the mysterious light was a fireball, which is a very bright meteor.

Robert Lunsford of the Geneseo, N.Y.-based American Meteor Society said it’s “pretty rare” for fireballs to produce a loud explosion. For that to happen, he explained, the meteor must have survived intact until breaking up about five miles above Earth. Most fireballs are visible at 50 miles above Earth.

“If you hear a sonic boom or loud explosion, that’s a good indication that some fragments may have reached the ground,” Lunsford told The Associated Press. “We’ll have to get some people to work on it to pinpoint where it broke up and see if anything can be found on the ground.”

South Lake Tahoe resident Sherri Bermudez was camping near the former Iron Mountain ski area, off Highway 88, Sunday morning when she saw an object streak across the sky. She said the rumbling that followed lasted for about 10 or 15 seconds.

“I just thought it was a shooting star,” Bermudez said, “It was pretty crazy.”

With a stroke of luck, Reno resident Lisa Warren was able to capture a widely circulated photo of the meteor.

“I was just out walking my dogs with my husband,” Warren said during a Tuesday phone interview. “I had taken my camera with me and my husband said, ‘Aren’t you going to take that out and take some pictures?'”

“As I was taking pictures, he said, ‘What the heck is that?’ and I looked up and just started snapping pictures,” Warren said.

Warren said she was shooting with a Pentax SLR at the time. Up until now, the bookkeeper and massage therapist’s only photography experience has been entering photos in the Reno fair, she said.

“Once we all started walking again, I said, ‘I don’t know how I did that. How did I get those pictures?’ I got three pictures in two seconds.”

She said she will likely enlarge the photo to hang up in her home.

Ruby said the fireball was a remarkable sight during the day, but a meteor coming into the earth’s atmosphere isn’t a rare occurrence.

“The earth gains 100 tons every day from meteorites hitting it,” he said. “There are about 2,000 fireballs a day, just not where people see them. That people saw it in the daytime is rare. That they heard the sonic boom is really rare.”

He said that a meteor can be traveling between 25,000 and 150,000 mph when it hits the atmosphere at 50-60 miles up. Friction from the atmosphere slows the meteor down.

The last time a meteor was visible over Nevada was November 2009, when a fireball that could be seen by people between Reno and Salt Lake City flew overhead, Ruby said.

He said it’s unlikely the fireball had anything to do with the current peak of the Lyrid meteor shower.

“People are putting two and two together and saying it has something to do with the meteor shower,” he said. “But the fireball was probably coincidental and unrelated to the peak of the meteor shower.”

– Record-Courier Editor Kurt Hildebrand, Tribune Editor Trisha Leonard, and The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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