CHARLESTON — A contrail of bright white smoke seen streaking southwestward over the eastern skies earlier this month before fragmenting in a flash of bright light, followed by shockwaves and the rumble of an explosion, is believed to have been the result of a meteor entering Earth’s atmosphere.
Observers in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia reported glimpsing the object or hearing it explode as they drove, flew airplanes, cut grass or paddled kayaks shortly before 10:25 a.m. Sept. 17. Twenty-five observers, from Hurricane, West Virginia, in the south to Altoona, Pennsylvania, in the north, filed fireball-sighting reports for the event with the American Meteor Society.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES 16 geostationary lightning-mapper satellite detected “a strong, fireball-like signature” at the time the explosion was seen and heard, according to NASA Meteor Watch’s Facebook page.
Energy released by the suspected meteor’s disintegration as it entered the atmosphere triggered a lightning-strike report for Hampshire and Hardy counties on the mostly clear, storm-free day.
GOES 16 has detected meteor strikes on several prior occasions, allowing data from those incidents, compared with information from Sept. 17’s, to enable scientists to estimate the most recent meteor’s speed and size at the time of fragmentation.
It was believed to have had a mass of about 50 pounds, and was traveling at about 45,000 mph before entering the atmosphere, triggering an explosion equivalent to the detonation of one to two tons of TNT, according to NASA Meteor Watch.
Scores of Hardy County residents reported hearing an explosion, sometimes followed by a brief, brisk wind and a whistling sound, on the date of the incident, according to Hardy County 911’s Facebook page.
Based on information provided by resident observers, the meteor’s trajectory followed a path that stretched southwestward from Capon Springs in the north to the Lost River area.
Among those reporting sightings to the American Meteor Society was an airline pilot who had been flying at 36,000 feet along the Virginia-West Virginia border. He and his co-pilot spotted an object producing “a long white smoke trail that bulged, thinned and bulged again before stopping.”
By comparing how fast his aircraft was “passing the ground below and the smoke trail above, it appeared the meteor made it fairly far down into the atmosphere — say well under 100,000 feet,” the pilot reported. “A few minutes later, we felt a thump and some turbulence, but have no way of knowing if this was from the shockwave of the meteor.”
A group of utility linemen near Front Royal, Virginia, reported seeing a “blue streak” passing overhead and moving southward, while a man paddling on the Tygart River saw the contrail moving past for an estimated 3.5 seconds, but heard no explosion. The observer reporting from Hurricane said he had been driving east on Interstate 64 when he saw “almost like an explosion of fire” in the sky.
“It is possible that this event produced meteorites somewhere in the northern Virginia/eastern West Virginia area,” according to NASA Meteor Watch.