Fireballs may light up early spring skies

I was always fascinated by the weather and by clear night skies as a child.

I grew up just outside of a small town in Tennessee and we always were treated to the beautiful night sky that wasn’t too polluted by city lights.

I remember one year seeing a very bright flash in the sky just before Christmas, and my mother telling me that what I saw was Rudolph making a test flight. Ever since then, I’ve always been fascinated by the night sky whether Rudolph was actually flying around or not.

What I likely saw that night was a meteor, or even more likely- a fireball. A fireball is just a very bright meteor that can be so bright, it can turn the night sky into day for a fraction of a second. For any of you who’ve been lucky enough to catch one of these very bright meteors, it is likely an experience you will never forget.

While March is the least active month for shower meteor activity (no major annual showers are active this month) you could see something spectacular before the month is over. According to NASA, there is as much as a 30% increase in the amount of fireballs, or very bright meteors spotted across the northern hemisphere in the weeks surrounding the first day of spring which is March 20 this year. However, NASA has no clear hypothesis as to why this happens, but says it appears there is more space debris in this section of earth’s orbit around the sun. Robert Lundsford, editor of American Meteor Society Journal, says another possible reason may be that this is when the Antapex Radient, which is the point the solar system is moving away from as we orbit the sun, is at its highest above the horizon during this time of year.

It turns out that 2016 may be a very good year to see fireballs light up the night sky. In fact, in between March 2 and 8, there were six major fireball events recorded across the sky over the continental United States according to the American Meteor Society. One of those major events was even visible here in the Miami Valley on March 8.

So while you never know when you may be lucky enough to see one of these amazing celestial shows, the chances are increasing that you may get to see one over the next few weeks during Fireball Season.

If you happen to miss seeing any fireballs, our next major meteor shower- the Lyrids- will peak late next month. Who knew that looking into the night sky for Rudolph would get me so fascinated with astronomy and weather. But I’m glad it did.

Eric Elwell is WHIO StormCenter 7 Chief Meteorologist. Contact him at eric.elwell@coxinc.com or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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