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Mystery Fireball in Texas Actually a Jet Contrail, NASA Scientist Says
A rare daytime fireball streaked across the Texas sky April 4.
Credit: YouTube/Celestialconvergence

A bright object that streaked across the Texas sky during the day April 4, originally believed to be a meteor burning up as it entered Earth's atmosphere, was actually a flying jet and its contrail, a NASA scientist has confirmed.

Local news stations reported that the bright object was a fireball (an especially bright meteor) and Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, initially said it was indeed a fireball, and more evidence of the mysterious and unexplained observation that there are more fireballs in the spring than other times of the year. However, other experts argued that the Texas fireball was actually a jet contrail reflecting the glow of the setting sun, making it appear fiery.

Cooke has agreed. "Reviewing the video, it does appear to be a contrail," he told Life's Little Mysteries. "There were sightings of a daytime meteor April 2 but this video is not of a meteor/fireball. Different event."

The April 2 daytime fireball — a rare event, as a meteor must be at least one yard across for its atmospheric entry to be visible during the day — was seen by thousands of people in New Zealand. That one was an example of spring fireball season.

According to Cooke, 30 years of observations show that there's a consistent uptick in the number of fireballs during the spring compared with other times of the year. "There are two peaks: one around February and the other at the end of March and early April," said Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. "And this remains a mystery."

No one knows why springtime meteors are 10 to 30 percent more common. "I can tell you a lot of the bright and slow fireballs appear to be coming from the direction opposite the sun, but they have not much in common other than that," he said. "You see a lot more ordinary meteors in the fall, but the spring seems to have the big slow movers — the ones that are really impressive."

To tackle the mystery, Cooke and his NASA colleagues have set up a network of "smart meteor cameras" around the United States that they use to triangulate the trajectories of meteors, pinning down their positions to within the area of a football field as they enter the atmosphere. This has enabled the scientists to map the origins of falling space rocks from different parts of the sky.

The approximately 1,800 meteor events recorded by the camera network so far indicate that the spring fireballs probably originate fromasteroids, while fall meteors come from comets. "The [spring fireballs'] orbits indicate they come from the main asteroid belt. A lot of the smaller meteors in the fall come from comets, which are made of icy bits of dust, and they don't last long in the atmosphere. Those ones are generally not big enough to make fireballs."

Once sufficient data has been collected, the scientists expect a pattern to emerge that will reveal the reason for spring fireball season, or the fact that Earth seems to encounter more asteroidal material in the spring. "It appears that a lot of the stuff out there in the asteroid belt is clumping up in the springtime more than other times of the year," he said.

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