Amateur stargazers in the U.S. were treated to not one, not two, but three fireballs on Monday that lit up the sky as well as social media. Actually, make that two fireballs and one stuntman.
The three streaks of light – one above Arkansas, a second above Illinois and a third over West Virginia – prompted reports from hundreds of witnesses who said the objects appeared to be hurtling toward Earth. Astronomers confirmed that two of the objects were indeed meteors breaking apart in the planet’s atmosphere, but the third, the one above Illinois, was actually a marketing stunt by energy drink maker Red Bull, according to Space.com.
What at first looked like it could have been a meteor over Chicago’s Lake Michigan shoreline turned out to be a person in a wingsuit who had leapt from an airplane. The jumper then released a bright streak of sparks behind him, which looked a lot like a fireball to people on the ground. Video of the promotional feat was later uploaded to YouTube.
As for the other two fireballs seen that day, scientists say they were the real deal. "People see fireballs all over the Earth, every night of the year," Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteorite Environment Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, told Space.com. "This is not unusual for this time of the year."
Fireballs are basically meteors falling toward Earth that appear brighter than the planet Venus. They can range in size from particles weighing only a few grams to ones weighing several tons, according to the American Meteor Society. The fireball that appeared Monday evening over West Virginia was “probably the size of a softball or baseball,” based on how bright it appeared, Cooke said.
Several thousand fireballs crash through Earth’s atmosphere every day, the society reports. Astronomers estimate there are more than 500,000 fireballs in the sky a year, however most go unnoticed because they occur over the ocean or during daylight.
The fireball over Arkansas was seen around 9:30 a.m. central time. Cooke said the fireball was most likely a Taurid meteor, sometimes called Halloween meteors, which appear between mid-October and mid-November.