Residents of St. Paul, Myrnam, Elk Point, and Lac La Biche all spotted a similar blue flash in the sky around 6:23 a.m. on Feb. 22.
Some heard an accompanying ‘boom’ and wrote the flash off as lightning. But according to Dr. Patrick Hill, a post-doctoral fellow of Advanced Curation of Astro Materials in the University of Alberta’s Earth and Atmospheric Sciences department, the flash was caused by a meteor.
“What we saw today is what we call a viable event. So that is just a meteor that is exceptionally bright in the night sky. And what that means is that a mass bigger than a grain of sand enters into the atmosphere and made it further down and so that brightness is a result of the friction from the planetary material entering into the atmosphere and interacting with the atmosphere,” said Hill.
Asked how large he would estimate the meteor to have been to cause the flash, Hill said this event was likely caused by something boulder sized or upwards.
“The reason why it is so bright is just because it’s moving at exceptionally fast speeds and interacting with the atmosphere,” said Hill.
Asked if scientists know where the meteor landed, Hill said they have an ongoing project to triangulate the location based on video data from cameras located all across North America. He said so far they’ve received reports of sightings from as far east as Saskatchewan and as far south as Calgary.
“At the University of Alberta we’re part of the Global Fireball Observatory, and we have specifically designed cameras from just north of Edmonton to just south of Calgary. And what these do is they capture imagery of the night sky, and because they have known GPS locations and references of the night sky, we can use multiple cameras to triangulate the exact path and narrow it down. So we’re working on trying to determine the exact location as we speak,” said Hill. He said the process of locating the meteor can take anywhere from 24 hours to several days.
In addition to figuring out the path the meteor took on its way through the atmosphere, Hill said they also need to calculate when it went dark and model a freefall event using weather information to get a sense of where exactly it would have landed.
“You can think of it as something trying to punch the atmosphere. The material comes in, it punches, it hits the atmosphere and because it can’t compress the atmosphere all the way down it slows it right down. And then at some point above the earth’s surface, it will begin to freefall downwards and fall in a downward motion and lose most of its horizontal velocity,” said Hill.
Hill said that events like Monday morning’s are quite random. Meteor showers, which happen when the earth crosses path with a comet or through the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter in its orbit around the sun, can be predicted to a degree because they involve things with consistent orbits.
The fireball seen on Monday morning has no such connection to the night sky.
Hill said being able to collect the remnants of the meteor is important because it allows researchers to develop a real sense of the “chemistry and insights into the different processes that shaped our solar system from 4.6 billion years ago to now.”
He said in addition to using meteorites to study the history and evolution of the solar system, “it also informs us directly in those bodies based on the receiving meteorite from the Moon and Mars. And then also, we can use it as analog material to help better understand and interact with space and prepare us for space missions.”
If you have any photos or video footage of the meteor when it passed through, you are encouraged to submit it to the American Meteor Society’s fireball reporting page along with the details of where the camera was located and when it was seen.
Video credit: Zarowny Motors St. Paul.