The American Meteor Society has received reports of a bright fireball meteor being seen over Arizona, slightly before 7.20 am local time (slightly after 2.20 pm GMT) on Sunday 16 February 2020. The meteor passed over the central part of the state from west to east. A fireball is defined as a meteor (shooting star) brighter than the planet Venus. These are typically caused by pieces of rock burning up in the atmosphere, but may be the result of man-made space-junk burning up on re-entry. It is thought that some material from the meteor may have fallen to Earth in the area south of Prescott.
Heat map of the southwest United States showing areas where sightings of the meteor were reported (warmer colours indicate more sightings), and the apparent path of the object (blue arrow). American Meteor Society.
Objects of this size probably enter the Earth's atmosphere several times a year, though unless they do so over populated areas they are unlikely to be noticed. They are officially described as fireballs if they produce a light brighter than the planet Venus. The brightness of a meteor is caused by friction with the Earth's atmosphere, which is typically far greater than that caused by simple falling, due to the initial trajectory of the object. Such objects typically eventually explode in an airburst called by the friction, causing them to vanish as an luminous object. However this is not the end of the story as such explosions result in the production of a number of smaller objects, which fall to the ground under the influence of gravity (which does not cause the luminescence associated with friction-induced heating).
These 'dark objects' do not continue along the path of the original bolide, but neither do they fall directly to the ground, but rather follow a course determined by the atmospheric currents (winds) through which the objects pass. Scientists are able to calculate potential trajectories for hypothetical dark objects derived from meteors using data from weather monitoring services.
Witness reports can help astronomers to understand these events. If you witness a fireball-type meteor over the US you can report it to the American Meteor Society here.
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