Brilliant Fireball Over New Mexico Caught in Video
This still image taken from a Sept. 21, 2010 video shows a blazing fireball over New Mexico as seen by a camera operated by radio astronomer Thomas Ashcraft.
Credit: Thomas Ashcraft. Full Story]

A brilliant fireball lit up the night sky above parts of New Mexico and Texas this week in a fiery display recorded by a skywatching camera.

The fireball, thought to be created by a small space rock, occurred Tuesday night (Sept. 21) at about 11:01 p.m. EDT (0301 GMT) and was captured in a video camera as the meteor carved its fiery trail across the sky. It lasted 23 seconds and covered parts of New Mexico and west Texas, according to the website [Video of the Sept. 21 fireball.]?

"I was inside at the time, but heard and felt the sonic boom," said radio astronomer Thomas Ashcraft, who operates the all-sky camera 20 miles (32 km) outside of Santa Fe, NM that recorded the fireball as it flew overhead.

At first, Ashcraft thought the sound was thunder, but no storms were expected. Then a phone call inquiry led him to check his camera's data, where he saw "a spectacular meteor occurrence."

"At first I thought that this might have been space junk or satellite debris re-entering the Earth's atmosphere due to the low speed," Ashcraft told in an e-mail. "But upon further analysis, I am pretty sure this was a natural meteoric event, possibly asteroidal."

According to the skywatching website, the fireball prompted many calls to a TV news station in Albuquerque, NM, among other reports.

Ashcraft said some witnesses? described the fireball as "white and shedding sparks," blazing "like a firework," or shining bright with red and yellow colors.

"It was not quite as bright as the moon," Ashcraft said. The moon appears as a bright, unmoving disc in the fireball video.

But the fireball was still dazzling, and is one the top three events Ashcraft has recorded in the last four years.

"A fireball this size only happens once or twice per year over one observing location," he said.

Meteor fireballs are fallen debris from comets or other space rocks. As the debris hits Earth's atmosphere, it heats up and produces the brilliant streaks of light which we sometimes call shooting stars. Though most meteors are destroyed during this process, some make it to the ground and are known as meteorites.

Many bright fireballs go unrecorded and often even completely unnoticed because they fall over remote areas or over the oceans (and Earth?s surface is about three-quarters oean).

Ashcraft uses an experimental camera on loan from Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. The Sentinel all-sky camera is a near-infrared low light video camera outfitted with a fish-eye lens. It can observe fireballs that occur anywhere within a 350-mile (563-km radius). Ashcraft has added a forward scatter radio meteor array to the camera, which can sometimes pick up sounds.

"If you listen closely to this fireball you will be able to hear some sound, though it is subtle," he said.