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Brilliant Fireball Streaks Over Southeastern US (Video, Photos)

'Earthgrazer' Meteor Seen Above South Carolina and Tennessee
On May 16, 2014, basketball-sized meteoroid entered the atmosphere 63 miles above Columbia, South Carolina. Moving northwest at 78,000 miles per hour, it burned up 52 miles above the Tennessee countryside, just north of Chattanooga. This fireball, not part of any meteor shower, belongs to a class of meteors called Earthgrazers.
(Image: © Marshall Space Flight Center Meteoroid Environment Office)

A rare, long-lasting fireball streaked through the skies of the southeastern United States Thursday night (May 15), putting on a show for stargazers lucky enough to see it from the ground.

The space rock entered Earth's atmosphere above Columbia, South Carolina. The basketball-sized meteoroid then moved northwest at about 78,000 mph (125,500 km/h), burning up above Tennessee, according to a statement from Bill Cooke of NASA's meteoroid environment office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. NASA's skyward-pointing cameras captured an amazing video of the long-duration fireball.

"This fireball was not part of any meteor shower and belongs to a class of meteors called Earthgrazers," Cooke wrote in the statement. "These meteors skim along the upper part of the atmosphere before burning up. This one travelled a distance of 290 miles [467 km], which is quite rare for a meteor."

This map shows the path of the Earthgrazer meteor as it flew over South Carolina and Tennessee on May 16, 2014.
(Image credit: Marshall Space Flight Center Meteoroid Environment Office)

While this fireball is not part of any meteor shower, it does come one week before a new meteor shower is expected to grace the skies. The never-before-seen Camelopardalid meteor shower should peak overnight on May 23 and 24 as Earth passes through a stream of debris left behind by Comet 209P/LINEAR.

The new meteor shower could be as amazing as the annual Perseid meteor shower, which occurs each August. Still, no one knows what to expect; the meteor shower could be incredible, generating a "meteor storm" of 1,000 shooting stars per hour, or it could fizzle out, experts say.

Earthgrazer meteors skim along the upper part of the atmosphere before burning up. This one travelled a distance of 290 miles, quite rare for a meteor. Image released May 16, 2014.
(Image credit: Marshall Space Flight Center Meteoroid Environment Office)

Meteor showers happen when Earth passes through streams of dust and gast sloughed off by cosmic bodies. The debris enters the atmosphere, burning up and creating the light flashes that are sometimes called shooting stars.

A bit of space debris still in space is known as a meteoroid. If that piece of a comet or asteroid enters Earth's atmosphere, it's called a meteor, and any bit of rock that makes it to the planet's surface is dubbed a meteorite.

Editor's Note: If you capture an amazing photo of the Tennessee fireball, the new meteor shower or any other night sky view that you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, please contact managing editor Tariq Malik at spacephotos@space.com.

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