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May 20, 2008 11:05 PM   Subscribe

Anyone get the license plate of that potentially Earth-destroying meteor? (Long, needlessly detailed yet interesting story inside.)

Here's the bare bones:

- It was April or June of 1985
- It was a Friday evening between 7:30 PM and 8:30 PM EST
- It was the freakiest thing I ever saw in my life
- As far as I know, only three people on the planet saw it.

In the spring of 1985, my great-aunt Gladys and I were performing our usual Friday night ritual: feed and walk the dogs before 8 o'clock so we could curl up on the couch and watch Airwolf on CBS. After the dogs were finished eating, we leashed them and went for a walk down by our barn. Now, there are a lot of trees around our house, and it just so happens that where we were walking affords the only unobstructed view of the eastern sky. I happened to look up, facing east and slightly south. What I saw brought me to a dead stop. Gladys asked me what was wrong. I looked at her, then I pointed up in the sky at it. Remember when you were a kid and you would draw a picture of a comet? It was always a huge rock with flames rolling off the back, leaving a huge trail of smoke, right? Well, that's what we saw. It was vast, heading roughly north and parallel to the ground. We could not only see it, we could hear it as well. It was making a crackling/popping noise, like when you're 25 feet away from a campfire. We stood and watched it for several minutes as it continued to travel. At a certain point, it passed directly in front of the moon. It was so bright that while it was in front of the moon, the moon dimmed. It wasn't moving across the sky as fast as a falling star, but more along the speed of a plane at a really high altitude. While we were watching we debated what it was. One of the space shuttles was up at that time, and we were afraid that what we were watching was the shuttle crashing. At some point I went from being dumbfounded to being scared out of my pants. Gladys and I hustled the dogs inside and I ran to my grandmother. She went to the dining room window, saw it, and immediately went to her knees and started praying. She was convinced it was the Apocalypse. Gladys and I continued to watch it until it disappeared over the horizon.

Gladys died in 2003. A few weeks before she died, I asked her if she remembered any of this. (Over the years, I'd managed to half convince myself that I dreamed it.) She remembered everything, without my prompting her, right down to my grandmother praying and the fact that we were going to watch Airwolf.

Now, for some summation. I think what we saw was the near-Earth collision of a rather large meteor. I'm sure that it was inside the atmosphere (remember, we could hear it).

The questions:

1. Did you or anyone you know see it?
2. Any pointers on how I could research this as to what it was, evidence that someone else saw it, etc? I've been looking/googling for years and I can't come up with anything.
3. How could anything like that, if it was a meteor, make it into our atmosphere but fly parallel to the ground? Shouldn't it have come in at an angle, hit the ground and vaporized the Eastern seaboard? Is it possible, theoretically, that it gave our atmosphere a glancing blow and skipped, like a flat rock on calm water?
4. If you don't think it was a meteor, any theory on what it was?

PS - I'm not crazy. Well, ok, maybe a little, but not about this.
posted by Vavuzi to Science & Nature (28 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:27 PM on May 20, 2008

That does sound a lot like other descriptions I've heard of fireballs (large meteors).

2. You might try the Meteoritical Society. Among other things they keep records of sightings of fireballs. The online records I've found don't go back to 1985, but their paper records ought to.

3. AIUI, it could have skipped off the atmosphere, it could have hit in some remote place, or it could have broken up in midair and the fragments not really been noticed when they reached the ground. Even a very bright meteor might be physically pretty small.
posted by hattifattener at 11:30 PM on May 20, 2008

Response by poster: Oops, forgot that, didn't I? Home is in Cicero, NY, about ten miles north of Syracuse.
posted by Vavuzi at 11:31 PM on May 20, 2008

Other people who might have old fireball observation reports somewhere: the International Meteor Organization and the American Meteor Society.
posted by hattifattener at 11:39 PM on May 20, 2008

It is possible for a meteor to pass through the atmosphere without hitting the planet.

But there are other aspects to your story that don't make sense. You say you saw it, and heard it. But the speed of sound isn't very fast. It's about five seconds per mile. If that thing was, say, at 100,000 feet (and from your description it was not directly over you), then it was more than 20 miles away and it would have taken at least a minute and 40 seconds for the sound to reach you -- which would mean that the sound would seem to be coming from where you saw the object a minute and a half earlier, not directly from it.

Another point: from the description, it can't have been moving very fast at all. From when you first saw it, you stood and watched for a couple of minutes, then had time to go home and alert your grandmother, and then you watched it still longer.

Most meteors come in with a relative speed of many miles per second. They wouldn't be over your horizon for all that long.

If it was higher, it would be visible longer, but if it was higher then you've got the problem of speed of sound, and the problem of sound dissipation. I'm not sure you'd be able to hear crackling and rumbling like you describe if it was 30 miles up or more. And the sound-versus-light offset would have been impossible to ignore even if you could hear it.

On the other hand, if it was low and slow, then a combination of air resistance and gravity would probably have pulled it down into the ground.

Just to make clear, I'm not calling you a liar. But I do wonder if your memory of the event has changed quite a lot since it happened. That's not uncommon for things that happen that long ago, especially if you were a kid when you witnessed it.
posted by Class Goat at 12:08 AM on May 21, 2008

Hmmm, The Millman Fireball Archive goes back that far, but Canadian sightings only, and nothing matching your date range. OTOH, it has a link to an interesting paper on fireball 'sounds'.
posted by hattifattener at 12:16 AM on May 21, 2008

What's the likelihood that someone nearby was launching rockets or something like a rocket? Any Air Force bases nearby? There's a small UCMC, Army National Guard, and Air Force center in Syracuse (next to Hancock Int'l Airport)...

The fact that you heard it is what's making me so skeptical that it was extraterrestrial, for the same reasons Class Goat lists.
posted by spiderskull at 12:34 AM on May 21, 2008

I saw something like this, many years ago (around 1964). I was at a drive-in movie. As I recall, the thing showed a disc of similar size to the sun. It traveled from east to west, and was extremely bright. This was in Flint, Michigan. Don't recall any sound though.

But it didn't seem to go very fast, which is the main reason I mention it. It was just big and bright and moving. Our first thought was fireworks, but on second thought, IIRC, it was Labor Day, not Independence Day.

That's all I can recall, for sure. I was around 7 years old, maybe a couple years older (no way to recall how old, or what movie it was. Common thing back then, to go to the drive-in with my mother, sister, and aunt, and a big tub of homemade popcorn and icechest of sodas...and yes, wearing pajamas).
posted by Goofyy at 4:31 AM on May 21, 2008

Weirdly, I was channel-surfing a few nights ago and found some Discovery channel (I think) program about meteors and fireballs. They had excellent video of a meteorite (scroll down, or do a page find for Peekskill) that ended up going through the trunk of a woman's car in Peekskill, NY. Unfortunately, this was not your meteor(ite), as it happened in 1992.

There's a list of sources on this page which may be helpful.

I saw something similar in 2002 or 03, over the SF Bay Area. Astonishing.
posted by rtha at 6:37 AM on May 21, 2008

There was apparently a bright meteoric fireball observed over the southeastern U.S. in late March 1985, as a Google News Search shows. Unfortunately, all the articles describing it are subscription-only, so I can't get any more details. Meteoric fireballs can be seen over quite wide regions — the famous example is the Great 1972 Daylight Fireball, which skimmed through the atmosphere from Utah to Alberta, so it's conceivable that your sighting was associated; but it's not a bet I would place money on.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:43 AM on May 21, 2008

To see the moon in the east around 8 p.m. would mean the moon would have to be full or near full. (Do you remember more specifically what phase the moon was in?) That might help to narrow down the dates.

Full moons during that period were on April 5, May 4, and June 3, 1985. Given that it was a Friday, I'd say likely dates for this are April 5, May 3, May 30, or June 7.

(I actually found some reports of a Soviet spy satellite falling to earth on June 20, 1985, seen in parts of the midwest, but a) that was a Thursday, b) reports say that happened around midnight, and c) the phase of the moon is too far off.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:03 AM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've managed to see three very large meteors in my lifetime, though none quite like yours.

One, when I was a child with my parents, streaked across the sky and exploded. It was on the local news.

As an adult, the other two were both when I was alone, and both not quite so spectacular as the first, but truly amazing sights to see. One was green, and the most recent, only about three weeks ago, was kind of a yellowish-orange. These two were maybe three quarters the apparent size of the moon to my eyes.

You're not crazy. Big ones happen. The Earth is struck by thousands of meteors every year, and the vast majority of the Earth's surface isn't inhabited, so they almost never get seen by, let alone hit anyone.

Personally, I seem to see them when something important is about to happen in my life. That probably sounds superstitious, but I don't care.

I say treasure the memory. That's what I do.
posted by SlyBevel at 7:08 AM on May 21, 2008

Wasn't Airwolf on on Saturday nights?
posted by steef at 7:08 AM on May 21, 2008

Scratch June 7 from that list. Moonrise at your location wasn't until after midnight on that date.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:09 AM on May 21, 2008

Ooh, revised possible dates if steef is right about it being Saturday: April 6 is a longshot; moonrise at 8:28 p.m. May 4 moonrise at 8:18 p.m. May 31 seems to work best--a 5:49 p.m. moonrise would still make it more or less east at the time you saw it.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:14 AM on May 21, 2008

But the speed of sound isn't very fast. It's about five seconds per mile. If that thing was, say, at 100,000 feet (and from your description it was not directly over you), then it was more than 20 miles away and it would have taken at least a minute and 40 seconds for the sound to reach you -- which would mean that the sound would seem to be coming from where you saw the object a minute and a half earlier, not directly from it.
This is interesting because of something I read just the other day in the O'Reilly book Mind Hacks. The author describes experiments that show that the brain uses different senses as the primary determinants of certain aspects of a signal. He says that while the exact time at which an event happened is usually determined by sound, where the sound comes from is usually determined by vision. This is the precise reason that ventriloquism works -- even though the sound is coming from the ventriloquist's mouth our mind believes that it is coming from the doll's mouth because it is moving. So it is entirely possible that something on a larger scale is happening here i.e. the sound appears to come from where the meteor is moving right now, not from where it is actually coming from (where the meteor was a minute and a half earlier).
posted by peacheater at 7:30 AM on May 21, 2008

I'm not certain that the perceived location of the sound is a point worthy of scrutiny.

The sense I'm reading here is that it would sound like a jet. On a quiet day, a jet high above sounds as though it is behind where it appears.

However, I'd imagine that the crackling and rumbling of a meteor would be more like thunder. Can you accurately position a distant lightning strike by its sound? Not often, as a huge distant sound rumbles around the sky and comes to you seemingly from everywhere.
posted by rlk at 7:48 AM on May 21, 2008

Almost forgot one other clue that you gave us: that a space shuttle was up at the time. Cross-referencing the dates I suggested earlier with the list of space shuttle missions, May 4 seems the only possible date. But with an 8:18 p.m. EDT moonrise, the moon would have been very low in the sky (and you would have been missing part of Airwolf). Is that how you remember it?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:06 AM on May 21, 2008

If this was as impressive as you make it sound, the local paper would have certainly written up a story about it. Go to the library and search through the archives.
posted by wabashbdw at 8:17 AM on May 21, 2008

Tiny meteors can appear so much huger from the ground than they really are. It's hard to get a handle on how that big streaking star that left a smoke trail was a tiny pebble or even sand grain miles and miles above. How big was the Peekskill one? A football? A potato? It was seen over several states by huge numbers of people.

My understanding is that it's fairly common for people to report "sound" when they see a big fireball. Whether that's just a psychological effect, or something more esoteric, I have no idea, but there's nothing "crazy" about reporting it.
posted by gimonca at 9:33 AM on May 21, 2008

i may have seen it, or something just like it in northern lower penninsula of michigan in the late 70's/early 80's. It could have been yours. The one I saw, I think, was heading northeast. But all of what you described, I saw: the firey rock, the column of smoke, and the sound. In fact, it was the sound that let me know it was there. the only thing that's different is the time: from first seeing it to having it go out of sight was no more then 20-30 seconds. i was in a pretty thick forest, so the view of the sky was pretty limited. The smoke remained for quite some time, like an hour or two.

i always assumed it was a meteor that was hitting earth at an oblique angle. figured it finally hit ground somewhere north of lake huron, in canada.

it was one of the coolest things i ever saw. never saw any news about it.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 10:54 AM on May 21, 2008

Ummm.... The original poster reported a crackling/popping noise, like when you're 25 feet away from a campfire.

The rumbling sound is a red herring introduced in responses.
posted by exphysicist345 at 6:47 PM on May 21, 2008

Response by poster: Hmmm. So much to think about, but then I love a good mystery, don't you?

steef: You were right. Good catch. Airwolf did air on Saturdays, not Fridays. If we take this as God's own truth, then Airwolf went on the air in spring of 1984, which explains why I was so keen on seeing it. (I remember know that the later seasons sucked.)

Class Goat: It's frustratingly difficult for me to describe sounds in words. The sound(s) it made weren't very loud, but we could hear it. If you think of it as a mix of sounds: there was a little bit of a flickering, like when you have a candle and blow on the flame, but not enough to blow it out, and a little bit of a crackling and popping, like a campfire. But the noise it made was very faint to our ears. I may have made the sounds up in my head to match the "burning" that I saw with my eyes. I don't know. I do know that under stress, humans can hallucinate random things, and I know it's happened to me before, but at the time, I wasn't under stress. I wasn't scared of it at first, I was just dumbfounded.

spiderskull: Minimal chance of rockets. At the time, there wasn't really that much around, and believe me, this was no pop-bottle backyard production. :-) Also, I really don't think that it was an airplane or anything military related. I grew up about 5-6 miles, tops, away from Hancock International Airport and The Boys from Syracuse. I was used to seeing the fighter jets and such in the air. This didn't look anything like a plane.

DevilsAdvocate: I don't think that the moon was full, but close to it. And I've looked at the shuttle mission list before, but I kept on getting thrown off by something. More on this in a minute.

Johnny Assay: Thanks for that link to Google news, I think it helped... a lot.

What we saw looked much more like this (jump ahead to about 2:00 to see it. Yes, I know it's totally fake. This is for illustrative purposes only.) than it did like that. The first vid is kinda like what I described and besides the fact that what I saw was at night, it looks surprisingly close: a rock, on fire, hurtling through the sky, leaving a trail of smoke.

The second vid is of what a falling star or meteor usually looks like. Believe it or not, I've seen one of these up close and personal as well. I was leaving a movie theater one night when a small (we're talking pebble sized) meteor came streaking out of the sky and hit the side of the theater building. The sound it made, a high-pitched whistle, was completely different from what I saw on the night in question. It also looked like a streak of light... very little smoke. Mostly flash, no puff. That's one of the things that's been tripping me up: I've seen both of these things and they didn't look anything like one another.

I think I was mistaken about two things: the day of the week and the year. I think it was Saturday (thanks, steef!) and I think it was 1984, not 1985.

Here's my theory. On Saturday, April 7, 1984, Gladys and I fed the dogs and took them out as I described. We saw the meteor (I'm now reasonably convinced that's what it was). It was flying north. Ran inside, told my grandmother, she saw it too.

Evidence this is the date? Airwolf would have been on, the Challenger had lifted off on April 6, 1984, the moon wouldn't have been full but would have been 8 (?) days away from being full. If I can get conclusive proof that Airwolf was on that night and what the weather was like in Syracuse on that night (I remember very little cloud cover and warm enough to go out without a jacket), I think I can nail it.

After we saw it, the meteor continued north or northwest (?). Throw in some flight time, the international dateline, and a whole lot of belief and you could come up with... this???

I'm not saying that's what it was... but at least I have an idea now and something to research. I'm going to keep researching it and see what I can come up with. Thanks, everyone, for pitching in, probing my memory for me, and not treating me like a refugee from the X-Files... although the movie is coming out this summer and I'm SOOOOOOOO there.

SlyBevel: I do treasure the memory. It's one of the things that keeps me tied to my great-aunt Glubby. :-) Of course, it's also the reason why this and this scares the shit out of me.
posted by Vavuzi at 12:19 AM on May 22, 2008

Response by poster: G-d damn it. I forgot two links. Why is it I never edit carefully enough? The last sentence in the previous post should be:

Of course, it's also the reason why this and this scare the shit out of me.

posted by Vavuzi at 12:22 AM on May 22, 2008

I've seen a fireball like that. Don't think they're all that uncommon so it might be hard to track it down exactly.

With the noise, it is commonly reported. It's not clear how it comes about. See here, here and of course Wikipedia.

My posting of those links doesn't indicate I believe any of them offer the correct explanation.
posted by edd at 8:55 AM on May 22, 2008

Oh and I feel after reading comments in more detail I should say a bit about what I saw.

I've seen plenty of shooting stars before. They're clearly pointlike (well, linelike) and fast moving. The fireball I saw once had a distinct angular size, seemed to be slower moving (and certainly lasted more than the split second I'm used to with other meteors) and left a trail - I think smoke, but it was pretty bright so maybe it was some optical illusion or afterimage.

The really odd thing I remember was that it faded away. I can't figure out how something that big and bright can just fade away like that. I can only assume it disappeared behind a cloud it was too dark to see otherwise.

I didn't find it frightening or worrying - I assumed it'd not hit the ground in any big way.

There wasn't any noise.
posted by edd at 9:09 AM on May 22, 2008

I remember seeing a large fireball, but damned if I can remember the year. My guess is late 80s, early 90s. My friends and I would climb atop a dugout at a ball field and watch the stars, when many of our contemporaries were out drinking. So yeah, we were losers who enjoyed science more than booze.

Anyhoooo, one night we all saw what, in memory at least, seemed to be moving fairly slow... it was a bright orange, as I recall, and appeared to be heading downward, toward the North Atlantic (I am from Newfoundland in eastern Canada).

The thing I most clearly remember is hearing the thing. There was a whooshing sound, as I recall, maybe with a bit of a sizzle to it. It's still, to this day, one of the coolest things I recall seeing.

But now that I think about it, as a 37 year old skeptic, I wonder if it was flare or something, that our teenage brains made us think was a meteor from far far away.
posted by newfers at 8:42 AM on May 23, 2008

the moon wouldn't have been full but would have been 8 (?) days away from being full

Yeah, but the entire lunar cycle--full moon to full moon--is only about 29 days. Full moon to new moon is less than 15 days, and "8 days away from being full" is in fact less than half full. The USNO data for April 7, 1984, describes the moon on that day as "waxing crescent with 34% of the Moon's visible disk illuminated." Moonrise for your location at that date was 9:08 a.m., with moonset at 1:14 a.m.--while the moon would have been in the sky then, it would have been roughly southwest at that time, not east.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:42 AM on May 27, 2008

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