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Fireball streaks across night sky, likely lands in Lake Michigan

Feb 6, 2017

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Nope – it’s a meteor, or a fireball, or space junk...

A bright, unidentified object flying over Lake Michigan last night caught onlookers in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan saying just that.

But what was it?

Mary Adams, program director at the Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Emmet County, said that is today’s million-dollar question.

To identify fireballs, Adams said scientists have to find them. That won’t be easy this time around, as last night’s object probably landed in Lake Michigan.

But, like others, Adams can speculate.

It’s possible the object came from the celestial environment, she said, but it also could have been “space junk – which is our own stuff falling back on us.”

What is certain is that this falling object was not your typical meteor.

“When we see meteor showers, like the Perseid meteor shower in August, sometimes what looks to us like falling stars – these trails of light that go through the sky – are caused by something that’s not much larger than a grain of sand,” Adams said. “But with a fireball, it’s kind of ramped up from just a meteor that’s falling. It seems to explode at the end of its journey and so it really lights up. And that’s quite a bit different than just a typical meteor or falling star ... that’s what makes it more thrilling, and a lot of people see it over a large region, because there’s this big flash of light.”

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Adding even more thrill to the experience is the fact that fireballs are impossible to predict. Unlike meteor showers caused by comets that regularly travel through our solar system, you never know a fireball is coming.

"With something like this kind of an event," she said, "there’s no ability to predict it."

For the full interview, including why the sky is more mysterious at this time of year, listen above.

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