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Flash Was Meteor, Expert Says

By Bruce Daniels
Journal Staff Writer
    Look! Up in the sky, it's a bird; it's a plane; it's a ... piece of space junk?
    A spectacular flash of red streaking across New Mexico's night sky around 11:30 p.m. Sunday was seen from Carrizozo to the Four Corners and from Deming to Four Hills.
    In just a matter of seconds, the red streak appeared to explode, then break into several green-colored streams falling earthward.
    Scientists at first described Sunday's spectacular sky show as a "very strange event" that wasn't behaving at all like a typical meteor, the luminous display caused by a meteoroid's tumble through the atmosphere.
    Further review led Sandia National Laboratories scientist Richard Spalding to say the most likely explanation is that it was a meteoroid— what an object falling through the atmosphere is called until it hits the ground and becomes a meteorite.
    Spalding discounted broadcast reports Monday morning that the light may have been an "iridium flare," a reflection of sunlight from iridium communication satellites.
    Such flares tend to build slowly to a bright flash, then fade slowly, Spalding said.
    Amateur astronomer Bob Norton of Albuquerque also discounted the iridium flare explanation as preposterous, saying such bursts of light always appear as bright white, not colors, and never as an explosion or a disintegration.
    Norton's best guess is that the lights came from space junk falling back to Earth.
    The red glow would come from exterior heating in the re-entry, and the green color could have resulted from vaporization of internal components such as copper or brass, Norton said.
    The flash was seen as far away as southern New Mexico, and according to a broadcast report, the Luna County Sheriff's Office initially thought that the flash in the sky may have come from a plane in distress.
    Roland Herwig, public affairs officer for the Federal Aviation Administration's southwest regional office in Albuquerque, told the Journal that no planes had disappeared.