Spectacular Meteor Sparks Fireball Over California

California Fireball over Aptos
This image of the California fireball was taken on Oct. 17, 2012, by Rachel Fritz and Rick Nolthenius of Cabrillo College, Aptos, CA. (Image credit: Rachel Fritz & Rick Nolthenius/Cabrillo College)

Update: See our latest observing guide and preview for the weekend Orionid meteor shower here:Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks Tonight: How to Watch Online

A spectacular meteor lit up the sky over California Wednesday night (Oct. 17) just days before a highly anticipated meteor shower hits its peak this weekend.

The meteor put on a dazzling display over Northern California when it streaked across the sky at 7:44 p.m. PDT (0244 GMT), according to scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field. The subsequent fireball and sonic boom triggered a flood of reports by witnesses to local news stations and authorities, with accounts coming in from across San Francisco and the Bay Area, according to ABC's KGO-TV news station.

"At 7:44:44 pm PDT this evening, a bright fireball was seen  in the San Francisco Bay Area," scientists with Ames' Cameras for Allsky Meteor Surveillance (CAMS) wrote in an update. The project is led by meteor expert Peter Jenniskens of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute. "We are checking our CAMS camera results to see if we have a track. Biggest question at the moment is whether this ended over land or ocean."

The celestial fireworks came just days ahead of this weekend's Orionid meteor shower peak, which occurs overnight on Oct. 20 and 21. The meteor shower is created by bits of the famed Halley's Comet as they hit Earth's atmosphere and flare up in fiery display.

NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke at the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., has said the 2012 Orionid meteor shower should create dozens of meteors an hour, weather permitting. Because the moon is just a few days past its dark, "new" phase, it won't interfere with the weekend "shooting stars" show. 

Wes Jones caught the fireball over Belmont, CA, at 7:44 PM PDT, Oct. 17, 2012, using the camera at http://astrobytes.net/AllSky3.html. (Image credit: Wes Jones)

The Orionid meteor shower is one of two meteor displays created by Halley's Comet, which makes one orbit around the sun every 76 years. The other is the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, which occurs in May. The two meteor showers are created when the Earth passes through streams of dust cast off from Halley's Comet.

Editor's Note: If you snapped a photo of Wednesday night's dazzling meteor and would like to share it with SPACE.com, please send images, comments and your location info to managing Editor Tariq Malik at: tmalik@space.com.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at Space.com and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.