HELENA — The rockets’ red glare wasn’t the only spectacle lighting up the Montana sky over the holiday weekend. On July 3, the Montana Learning Center (MLC) captured their brightest fireball to date.
The atmospheric phenomenon was captured around 4:14 a.m. in the skies above Canyon Ferry. It was bright enough that a person could have been able to see their own shadow on the ground as if it were during the day.
The fireball phenomenon is when a meteor, otherwise known as a shooting or falling star, is larger than around a millimeter in diameter. The larger the size of the meteor, the bigger the flash in the sky.
The cosmic rock that entered the atmosphere on July 3 was likely big enough to survive all the way to the ground.
“Meteorites, the ones that we track are usually about the size of a pebble. This guy is literally larger than a basketball. It is that kind of rock,” explained MLC director Ryan Hannahoe.
MLC uses their All Sky Fireball Camera System to capture and track fireballs and other meteors. The system is capable of giving a 3D atmospheric trajectory of meteors as well as their velocity, magnitude, pre-atmospheric mass estimate for the meteoroid and determine the orbit of the meteoroid prior to hitting Earth. Impressive technology considering the July 3 fireball was traveling around 18,000 miles per hour according to the readings.
According to the American Meteor Society, fireballs aren’t all that rare with thousands happening each day. However, the vast majority go unseen. If a fireball occurs over the ocean, uninhabited regions of the planet, on a cloudy night or during the day they will likely go unnoticed. MLC’s tracking system helps more people witness the atmospheric phenomenon.
The Saturday fireball was also picked up by a station in Idaho, which means they’ll be able to figure out the meteor’s entry orbit and GPS coordinates of where it may have landed.
Meteorites are also the oldest rocks on the planet, with the oldest known meteorite being believed to have formed 7 billion years ago. That’s more than 2 billion years older than the sun.
On Saturday, July 10, MLC is hosting its “An Evening Under the Stars” fundraiser where people will be able to tour the observatories at the Canyon Ferry campus with a guest astronomer. There will also be dinner and a silent auction.
Tickets for the event need to be purchased in advance with more information available here.
All proceeds from the event go to supporting the mission of MLC to provide unforgettable learning opportunities for kids.