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Does anyone know what I saw?

Date: Mon Jun 2 09:23:35 1997
Posted by Liz Coleson
Grade level: other
School: No school entered.
City: Arlington State/Province: VA
Country: 22207
Area of science: Astronomy
ID: 865261415.As


Does anyone know what I saw? It was about 5:45pm on May 26, 1997. I was in McLean, VA at a swimming pool. The sky was clear blue and I was watching planes take off from the National Airport. When all of the sudden this small round amber light appeared in the sky from about a 45% angle directly in front and a little off center. The clouds were overcast in the distance so it appeared against some white clouds. It was very bright! I stood up from sitting in a chair and pulled off my sun glasses thinking it was a reflection off my glasses. It was even brighter and I put my glasses back on. It became bigger as I thought it was comming towards me. It then went directly overhead of where I was sitting. It was the size of a penny held at arms length. At this point, I curiously watched as it traveled faster than the planes I was watching. There were no trees in the way . It looked fuzzy and round against the bright blue sky, that was overhead of where I was sitting. I remember seeing the atmosphere quivering on the front and back ends of the light as it was traveling. I was looking hard to see if there was any other shape or shadow I was not seeing. I noticed this glowing light had no defined edges. I could see no dark nor a light side to this flying light but as it was passing overhead. When the light was overhead it seemed to be oblong. It made No noise at all. As it went past where I was sitting, it looked round again. Then it got smaller. As quickly as it appeared, it left. At a 45% angle it blinked out like someone just turned off a light. It all lasted about 20-30 seconds. This light was traveling from North/Northeast to South/Southwest. I drew a picture of the light as it traveled overhead.

It sounds like you were lucky enough to see a very bright meteor burning up in the atmosphere. Although rare, it is not unheard of to see them during the day. I saw one around sunset a few years ago myself, and I would have described it in a very similar way to how you did.

Usually you see meteors at night. That's because most of the time they aren't very bright, and so they are lost in the glare of daylight. At night, though, they stand out better. It's very surprising to see them while the Sun is up, but that just means you saw a really bright one. When they are that bright they are usually called "fireballs" or "bolides". You might be surprised to learn that most meteors you see at night are smaller than a grain of sand. Something the size of a pea makes a very dramatic entrance. What you saw may have ben even bigger, like a grapefruit size chunk of rock.

Two other facts may surprise you: most meteors burn up long before they reach the ground, and also the ones that do hit the ground are generally not very hot. The air slows meteors so abruptly that most burn up, and the ones that don't usually have the molten parts on the outside blown off by the passage through the air (this is called "ablation"). So when people find freshly fallen meteors, they are warm, not hot!

If you want to know more about meteors, you can go to The Nine Planets, which has lots of info about the solar system. I have some info about meteors on my web page, too, called Bad Astronomy. Near the bottom of the page is a link to a meteoric rise.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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