Bright Fireball over Midwest Wasn't a Leonid

By Bob DuHamel

At approximately 7:05pm EST on November 16, 1999, while many were watching the sky for Leonids, a bright fireball was seen, traveling generally from west to east, over Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and western New York.

The following report appeared on www.leonidslive.com on Tuesday evening:

"What's New on November 17, 1999: Huge Fireball Dazzles Midwest: Reports of a large fireball were received shortly after 7 pm EST on Tuesday night from states including KY, PA, IN, OH, MI, NY, WI and MO. The trajectory was similar in appearance to an aircraft, flying low and level across the horizon. It is likely that this is an "Earth-grazer" travelling nearly parallel to the Earth's surface through the atmosphere. This eastward-moving meteor was probably unrelated to the Leonids, but it could be a taste of things to come when the Leonids meteor shower peaks late Wednesday night and Thursday morning. Stay tuned!"

My first impression was that this sounded more like a satellite re-entry than a meteor.   The only thing missing from the description was changing colors.  For up-to-date information on satellites and related objects the first place to check is the SeeSat-L discussion group.  Darwin Teague posted the following description on SeeSat-L:

Fireball or re-entry?

"I'm located in central Indiana, 85 degrees forty minutes west, 40 degrees 5 minutes north. At 7:05 pm eastern, I saw a VERY bright fireball of some sort pass from west to east. I estimate when I first saw it, it was about 40 degrees up in the northwest (I was looking for MIR). It passed due north of me at about 30 degrees and "set" in the northeast. It was EXTREMELY bright, fluctuated in brightness and had a very bright and long tail. After passing the tail diminished and disappeared, but I could still see 3 or 4  bright "spots" trailing one another until it set. It seemed to slow somewhat as (it) passed also.  Was this a Leonid or a satellite decay?"

Floyd Weaver was next to post a description:

fireball_reentry_trajectory.gif (79353 bytes)

Ground track of the fireball from www.leonidstorm.com

"I was at Brickerville PA. which is at 76.30 west and 40.23 degree north. It is hard to have highly accurate measurements noted while driving but I will do the best I can. Looking at the map it appears I was heading to the west northwest, and the first I saw of it was a bit to the right of my direction of travel which makes it in the northwest. I first thought it was an airplane with the landing lights on, but I did not know of any airport nearby that it could have been coming into. It looked like an airplane due to the brightness and the appearance of multiple landing lights instead of one point of light. It was very low, maybe close 10 degree elv. Shortly I noted it had risen and now had a trail extending down and behind it. The trail was not of one solid brightness but had some bright spots in it. It continued to change and I soon thought this was a number (maybe about a dozen) of aircraft flying in formation, though they were not in a very good formation and the brightness varied greatly. Some of them were disappearing. I soon realized it was something reentering as I could see the trails of fire extending back about 10 degrees from the objects. The leading item was the last one to disappear. It was last seen in the north at maybe 30 degree elv and was moving close the horizontal."

Before long satellite watchers were posting their best guesses as to what it was...or wasn't.  Harro Zimmer from Berlin, Germany was the first to post:

Video frame of fireball

Frame from a video of the fireball

"I have checked all pieces of debris for a possible decay around Nov 17, 00:04 UTC. There is on the first look no realistic candidate. But 1992-093CB (#22386) SL-16 Debris was around Nov 16, 23:35 UTC ( based on the last released relatively old ELSET 1) in this region, in the right azimuth and moving direction ... if it was in orbit on this time. ...my rough calculation shows a decay at about Nov 15, 02.00 UTC."

Alan Pickup of Edinburgh, Scotland, author of SatEvo, a program to compute the orbital decay and re-entry times of satellites (see www.wingar.demon.co.uk/satevo/), was next to chime in:

"I, too, have so far failed to find a candidate among all the recent/current decayers... The description does sound very like a re-entry, but I don't think it was of a catalogued object, unless a secret one."

While satellite and meteor watchers were debating whether the object was a meteor or satellite re-entry, UFO watchers were reporting their own sightings.  The following excerpts from the Citizens Against UFO Secrecy web site at www.caus.org reveal their take on what the object was.  Compare these vague reports of "bizarre objects" and "formations" to the precise reports of experienced sky watchers above:

Major UFO Event - Tuesday Night, November 16 1999:

"The National UFO Reporting Center has received an estimated 80-100 reports (from) numerous eastern states tonight...The reports are widely variable, ranging from single, slow-moving fireballs, to formations of up to a dozen or more objects in seemingly precise formation."

"A group of lights on the "left portion" detached and 'moved away' from the larger formation"

"I saw a cigar shaped craft lined with white lights" 2

"we have received reports from two FAA facilities, indicating that multiple flight crews have seen extremely bizarre objects and formations in the night sky."

"We do not yet know what may explain these sightings, but they do not appear compatible with either a meteoritic event, or a space debris re-entry event."

The Great Daylight Fireball of 1972

On August 10, 1972 a daylight fireball grazed the earth's atmosphere from Utah to Alberta.  The meteor was caught on film and the USAF satellite-borne near-infrared radiometer, which indicated that the object exited the atmosphere over Canada.  Size estimates put the object anywhere between 2 and 80 meters in diameter. Had it impacted the earth it was large enough to wipe a small city off the map.

Technical Information
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Photograph

There is a marked difference in how people interpreted what they saw depending on what they expect to see when looking at the night sky.  Those who expect to see satellites and meteors saw satellites and meteors; those who didn't saw UFOs.  None of the observers reporting on SeeSat-L reported any colors.  On the other hand, several people who posted UFO reports on the CAUS site described the object as either green or orange, colors consistent with a satellite re-entry based on my own observations.  However, these people also connected the fireball with the "King of terror" foreseen by Nostradamus and expressed disdain for "...established science and academia that hazard forth to disregard and ridicule anything or anyone who is not sanctioned by them..."

Because of the absence of reported color changes in credible reports and the lack of a an orbital object to associate with the fireball, the evidence points to a meteor rather than a satellite re-entry.   This is bolstered by the comment by Major Perry Louis, spokesman for the US Department of Defense Space Command Center:

"We keep a very detailed list of what's up there and keep track of what's re-entered. Last night we did not record anything that was man made re-entering the earth's atmosphere."

Could it have been something other than a meteor or satellite re-entry?  UFO buffs will point to the statement by the Space Command Center and say "See!".   However, based on the reliable descriptions and video, and that a re-entry has been virtually ruled-out, it was a meteor.

 

1 Orbital element sets published weekly by NASA and used by satellite tracking programs.
2 This is not unlike reports in the 1950s of objects that looked like "B-29s without wings or tails", seen by airline pilots, that turned-out to be fireball meteors. (See The Report of Unidentified Flying Objects by Edward Ruppelt, Doubleday, 1956)

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