At about 10 p.m., Matt Culbreth and his wife were watching TV, when they glanced out their living room windows overlooking Gastineau Channel in time to see, “A large greenish blue fireball come down from the sky, and disappear behind Mt. Roberts.”
Culbreth says the object was too big to be a flare, and way bigger than any other shooting star he’s ever seen. It was in the air for a few seconds before disappearing, and both he and his wife were surprised that it didn’t make any noise.
“Definitely coming down to Earth, though. It wasn’t something really high in the atmosphere,” he says.
Steve Kocsis, a volunteer with Juneau’s Marie Drake Planetarium, says the Culbreths most likely saw a meteor. That’s a fiery streak of light that occurs when mineral objects from space hit Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrate. Shooting stars are meteors, but Kocsis says some look bigger than others.
“They’re called a bolide the brighter ones, and they’ll actually leave kind of like a smoky trail that will change shape from high altitude winds, just like jet vapor trails. And the really close ones, people will actually hear them. There will be a sonic boom,” says Kocsis.
He says it’s not unusual to see one, even in Juneau.
“The main unusual part is to have a clear night to actually see the meteor, but it’s not unusual to see random events,” Kocsis says.
Most meteors burn up completely when they hit the atmosphere, but if part of one falls to Earth it’s called a meteorite. Kocsis says it’s possible to triangulate the location of a meteorite, if it’s seen falling from more than one vantage point.
In January 2000, several Juneau residents saw a falling meteorite that was later found in fragments near frozen Tagish Lake in the Yukon Territory.
“A local there at Atlin was able to go out on the ice and recover it while it was still warm, and he had the foresight to send it to one of the museums,” says Kocsis. “Turned out to be a very rare one, one with organic chemicals in it.”
Matt Culbreth says his wife posted about Sunday’s celestial event on Facebook, but so far they appear to be the only ones who witnessed it. He’s hopeful that with a little publicity, maybe others will step forward.
“I hope so. I hope there was at least a few other people out there that had seen it. I don’t know how you could miss it if you were facing that direction at that time of night. It was just an amazing event,” Culbreth says.
For those who aren’t lucky enough to see a random shooting star, there are two big meteor showers every year – the Perseids in August and the Leonids in November. If the weather cooperates, you might even be able to see them in Juneau.