Look! Up in the sky! It isn’t a bird, it doesn’t look like a plane—what is it?
San Francisco residents looking up into the evening sky on Dec. 19, saw a bright light apparently trailing a smoking tail of some sort—something which didn’t look like anything easily recognizable.
Social media exploded with photos and videos and most of all, questions—What was that thing?
Some saw a “white blaze in the sky,” while others reported that it “flashed bright green for a few seconds as it fell and appeared to split up.”
this was about a minute earlier. it flashed bright green for a few seconds as it fell and appeared to split up. biggest, most impressive asteroid (?) I’ve ever seen pic.twitter.com/LkTwVnaktW
— Jeremy Thomas (@jeremythomas33) December 20, 2018
The blazing object appeared shortly after 5:30 p.m. local time. Observers said it appeared to separate into three parts as it fell.
The object left behind a smoky trail that appeared to indicate a spiral flight path which hung in the sky for many minutes, giving lots of people time to step outside and check it out.
By definition, it was a real U.F.O.—an unidentified flying object—until scientists from San Jose’s Lick Observatory weighed in and ended all the fun.
Sorry, folks—it was just another meteor.
“A bright meteor was visible in the skies over the Bay Area shortly after sunset this evening, leaving a bright trail that was visible for many minutes in the western sky,” the observatory posted on Facebook.
“Elinor Gates got a few photos showing how the trail was illuminated by the Sun after sunset and changed shape with the upper level winds in the atmosphere.”
Lick observatory is owned by the University of California. It is located atop the 4,200-foot tall Mt. Hamilton, about 10 miles east of San Jose and 30 miles southeast of San Francisco.
Photos taken shortly after the meteor entered the atmosphere show a fairly straight smoke trail.
Apparently, high-altitude winds distorted the meteor’s trail, making it look like a smoke trail from a spinning airplane—or something else.
“The initial path was straight (as seen on some dashcam footage), and later the winds at different altitudes morphed the trail to the shapes seen in these photographs (taken many minutes after the initial event,)” the observatory commented.
Some people insisted that the object came down in a spiral path, and thus could not have been a meteor.
“The meteor itself did not spiral. However, the trail it left behind was distorted by the various different wind speeds and directions in the upper atmosphere, leading to the shapes seen in these images, taken many minutes after the meteor burned up in the atmosphere,” the observatory responded.
Some hypothesized that the odd object or objects might have been related to the undocking of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft from the International Space Station, to bring home the ISS Expedition 57 crew. That event was scheduled to happen at 5:42 p.m. local time, according to Patch.com.
Berkeleyside reported that NASA advised that the Soyuz spacecraft wouldn’t have been entering the atmosphere until after 9 p.m.
Just by luck there was a Delta IV rocket launch scheduled at Vandenberg Air Force Base around the same time as the meteor descended, so some amateur star-gazers were out with their cameras aimed in the right direction, Fox News reported.
It was actually lucky for all those amateur atmospheric observers, that the meteor arrived when it did—the missile launch was scrubbed shortly after. If the meteor had not provided a show, the observers would have gone home disappointed.
Launch Alert: we have declared a scrub for today's launch of the #DeltaIVHeavy. We will set up for a 24 hour recycle and the next launch attempt will be 12/20 at 5:31pm PST.
— ULA (@ulalaunch) December 20, 2018
The rocket, prepared by United Launch Alliance—a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing—was supposed to launch a surveillance satellite. The launch was scrubbed—for the fourth time now—because of a suspected hydrogen leak.