A fireball that shot through the early morning sky Tuesday over the Maritimes and parts of Quebec was likely a meteor, experts say.
Reports came in from witnesses across New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and near the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec about a burning, colourful flame that appeared in the sky about 5 a.m. AT.
Astronomer David Lane, director of the observatory at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, said based on the descriptions from witnesses, “It sounds very much like a fireball or an extra-bright meteor, meaning a chunk of rock from space that got in the way of Earth and burns up in the atmosphere."
Lane said it's difficult to guess the size of the rock that burned as it depends on many factors, including how far away from the witness the meteor is.
“It’s really hard to tell, but venturing a guess, we’re not talking about something really big, probably something maybe the size of a car or something like that,” he said.
He said even if it did happen to fall to the ground, the odds of finding the meteorite are small.
“The chances of finding it are pretty slim. You really need a lot of good camera reports that shows the streak in the sky so that scientists can follow up a ... to do, essentially a triangulation and pinpoint a target search area,” said Lane.
“It’s almost analogous to the search going on now for that airplane in Asia. You know, having one or two points of radio contact is not enough to triangulate where it actually is.
He said finding a meteorite is very rare. Only one meteorite has ever been confirmed to have been found in the Maritimes.
'I looked out the window and caught it out of the corner of my eye, this ball of fire come down out of the sky.' - Jeff Locke
“Fireballs happen all the time. There’s something like 100 tonnes of stuff that hits the Earth every day from space but Nova Scotia, or I should say the Maritimes, there’s only been one meteorite ever found on the ground,” said Lane.
It was found in Benton, N.B., in 1949.
University of Moncton astrophysicist Francis Leblanc was not surprised to hear reports coming in from such a large area.
"It starts burning up tens of kilometres in altitude, so you can see it from very far away. And if it enters the Earth's atmosphere at a low-grazing angle, it can cross a large geographic region," said Leblanc.
'Like sun dropping out of sky'
Capt. Dan Roy, with New Brunswick's Keswick Valley Fire Department, saw the fireball.
"On my way home from a fire call in Chateau Heights around 5 a.m. this morning, I witnessed what I thought was an airplane falling from the sky. There were flames and sparks and then it just disappeared. Not like any [meteor] I've ever seen before," he said.
Jeff Locke, who lives in Fredericton, said the “fireball” he saw lasted about three seconds.
“I looked out the window and caught it out of the corner of my eye," he said. "This ball of fire came down out of the sky. I’ve got two big fir trees out here on my front lawn, and the light showed between those two trees, and I mean, it came down out of the sky. It wasn’t just up over above the trees. It was like somebody had fired a flare out of their gun or something.”
Morris McIntyre, who lives in Charlottetown, said he's not sure what he saw.
“It was just this great big orange ball. It was like the sun was dropping out of the sky,” he said.
George Hayes, a cattle farmer from Shigawake, Que., said he and his wife were awoken by something that sounded like thunder.
“It sounded a lot like thunder, it was just about 4 o’clock [ET], and we’re in calving season here, so any little noise we usually awaken, and this was a loud rumble of thunder. My wife and I both woke up,” he said.
Hayes said he thought the noise might have been a structure on his farm falling down.
“I went out to check on the animals and they had been disturbed, they all ran outside and they were as startled as we were,” he said.
Chris Fair of Beresford, N.B., said he also saw the bright flash of light at about 5 a.m. AT, followed by what looked like the remnants of a flare falling into the woods behind his house.
Burning space junk
Paulo Levesque of Moncton, N.B., saw the light while driving near St. Leonard.
"It looked like a piece of either sheet metal or something that was on fire. And I saw it slowly come down. And I saw bursts of flame all over."
Rick Parker, who lives on Mattatall Lake near Wentworth, N.S., said the light was so bright it got him out of bed.
“It was a bright light and it lit up the whole sky, and when I looked out the window, I just saw what appeared to be maybe the tail end of it, if you like, and it was almost like a meteor but not the same," he said. "It was falling in the northern horizon.”
The International Space Station was passing over the region at the time, but Parker said he has seen the ISS passing over before, and this was something else.
“This was much, much brighter. It started as a bright light. It lit up the sky enough to make me look out. I was just lying in bed, thinking about a fire in the wood stove, actually, and it lit up the whole sky. I mean it was very bright.”
According to NASA, the ISS had to dodge a piece of space debris that was in its orbit Sunday. The debris was from a Russian weather satellite launched in 1979.
Burning space junk is one possible explanation for the fireball that was witnessed Tuesday morning. The Associated Press reported the ISS fired its on-board thrusters, pushing the orbiting lab about a kilometre.