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Sierra Daily

09/16/2011

UFOs: The Usual Flying Objects

9-16-11 Meteor Fireball Chumack
This fiery meteor was captured by astrophotographer John Chumack.

On Wednesday night, the skies over the southwestern United States lit up when a fireball soared through the dark night. Footage taken of the fireball shows that after its initial burst of light, it faded and began to break up into smaller bits of light, which is perfectly characteristic of a larger meteor when it enters our atmosphere.

Yet, despite the fact that it behaved exactly as a meteor should, there are still many voices out there claiming that it was a UFO. People have a fascination with things that can’t be explained. Sometimes it’s just because they don’t know any better. Bright Venus is frequently mistaken for a UFO as it hovers near the horizon. This time of year, the star Capella is twinkling rapidly low in the northeast. Because it shines at us through a thicker layer of atmosphere, it almost appears to flash and has been considered “suspicious looking.”

Amateur astronomers spend many hours out under the stars, observing all the happenings of the heavens. They are also educated about what they’re looking at and what is going on in the sky. Understandably, then, this is not a group of people that frequently reports UFO sightings. When I am observing, I frequently see little bits of light trucking through my field of vision, passing background stars. But because I know they are orbiting satellites, I’m simply excited to see a bonus object and I don’t need to resort to fantastical explanations.

As for the southwestern fireball, it was probably about the size of a basketball that disintegrated completely as it ripped through the atmosphere. The next good meteor shower will be in late October, but random meteors such as this fireball can happen at any time.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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