Meteor Crashing Toward Earth Shines 40 Times Brighter Than the Moon

A meteor careering towards the Earth produced a fireball which briefly appeared at least 40 times brighter than the moon, lighting up the night sky in the early hours last Friday morning.

Several eyewitnesses in the southeastern United States reported seeing the bright object, according to the American Meteor Society which monitors and collects information on such phenomena.

In addition, six of NASA's meteor cameras in the region also detected the object, the space agency's All Sky Fireball Network—run by the Meteoroid Environment Office (MEO)—reports.

It was first detected at an altitude of 58 miles above Turkeytown, in northeast Alabama, before it moved just west of north at around 53,700 miles per hour, the MEO said in a Facebook post. The object later fragmented roughly 18 miles above the small community of Grove Oak, about 25 miles away.

Currently NASA has 17 meteor cameras dotted around the country equipped with specialized lenses that enable them to capture a view of the whole night sky overhead.

They have overlapping fields-of-view which means that the same fireball can be detected by multiple cameras, enabling scientists to calculate the height of the object, its speed and even its orbit before it entered the atmosphere. This can give clues as to whether it originated from a comet or an asteroid.

Asteroids, comets and meteoroids are all sub-planetary bodies in space which orbit around the Sun. Asteroids and meteoroids are both made up of rocks and minerals, although they differ in size—the former measure more than one meter in diameter, while the latter measure less than one meter. Comets differ in the sense that they are mainly made up of dust and ice, although they may have a small rocky core.

A meteor, on the other hand, is any meteoroid, comet or asteroid which enters the Earth's atmosphere. As they are vaporized by the extreme friction and heat as they fall, they generate a fireball which is colloquially referred to as a shooting star. Any fragments that survive and make it to the Earth's surface are called meteorites.

"Early results indicate the fireball, which was at least 40 times as bright as the Full Moon, was caused by a small asteroid 6 feet [2 meters] in diameter," the Facebook post stated.

"We are still assessing the probability of the fireball producing meteorites on the ground— whether it did or not, it was an extremely bright event, seen through partly cloudy skies and triggering every camera and sensor operated by the Meteoroid Environment Office in the region."