August 18 – Anniversary of a Fireball

Posted on August 18, 2016

Once in a while a meteor is so huge and bright in the sky that it becomes the talk of the town. “Did you see—?” everyone asks one another. “What was that?”

Imagine you are on the terrace of Windsor Castle, in England, on this date in 1783. Being on the terrace of a castle would be wonderful enough, but then you see this:

Some flashes of lambent light, much like the aurora borealis, were first observed on the northern part of the heavens, which were soon perceived to proceed from a roundish luminous body, whose apparent diameter equaled half that of the moon, and almost stationary in the same point of the heavens..

This ball at first appeared of a faint bluish light, perhaps from appearing just kindled, or from its appearing through the haziness; but it gradually increased its light, and soon began to move, at first ascending above the horizon in an oblique direction towards the east. Its course in this direction was very short, perhaps of five or six degrees; after which it directed its course towards the east...

Its light was prodigious. Every object appeared very distinct; the whole face of the country, in that beautiful prospect before the terrace, being instantly illuminated.

This painting was made by an artist
who was also on that terrace of Windsor
Castle that night...

The meteor was visible for about 30 seconds. If that seems like a super short time to you, remember that most meteors are visible for less than a second. Close your eyes and count “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand...” all the way up to “thirty-one-thousand” – that's 30 seconds. Can you imagine seeing a “falling star” in the sky for that long? It seems remarkable, doesn't it?

The Italian man who wrote the description above pointed out that the meteor appeared to split into several smaller bodies, and speculated that the rumbling thunder-like noise he heard ten minutes after the meteor appeared might have been the meteor bits exploding in the air or crash-landing on the ground.

This meteor was so large it is called a fireball. Another term for a bright meteor is bolide.

To learn more about meteors, check out this earlier post

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