ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sunday night’s "fireball" was seen across the West.
The brief but spectacular light show reported from across New Mexico Sunday night was apparently spotted as far away as Yakima, Wash., and was so vivid in Arizona that it prompted authorities to look for a downed plane near Saguaro Lake east of Phoenix.
Eyewitnesses from Tucson to Snowflake, Ariz., reported seeing a fireball streak across the night sky — with one visitor to the Pinetop-Lakeside area telling the Arizona Republic he saw a bright green, red and white object making a low swishing sound, like that of a hot-air balloon, as it moved overhead.
That happened around 10:15 p.m. Arizona time on Sunday, Scottsdale resident Kip Wachter told the Republic.
That gibes with an eyewitness account e-mailed us from a New Mexican who lives just off N.M. 14, about 5 miles south of the penitentiary, who pinpointed the sighting at 11:17 p.m. Sunday (New Mexico time).
In an e-mail to his son who lives in Arizona, he said he saw a "single bright light that could have been an airplane preparing to land at Santa Fe" that veered north, brightened and extended a long tail "as if a space shuttle were burning up."
The long light went northward toward Los Alamos and began to break up, trailing at least four pieces that also trailed light until disappearing from view, the e-mailer wrote his son.
Our e-mailer thinks the whole thing lasted about 30 seconds — "way too long to have been a meteor," said the e-mailer, who believes it was a piece of space debris.
Whether the object was space junk or a meteoroid (the flash of light itself is what’s called a meteor, the sky scientists say), those who saw the Sunday night show should count themselves lucky, Robert Lunsford of the American Meteor Society told the Arizona Republic.
Lunsford told the paper he regularly hears of similar events from eyewitnesses in both urban and rural areas around the country, but to see such an event in person takes good timing.
Sunday’s event took place early enough for people to still be out and about, and the object was larger and closer to the ground — maybe as low as 50 miles up — than most so-called shooting stars, the Republic said.
In an earlier version of the Arizona Republic story, Jeffrey Hall, associate director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, said that most meteors visible from the earth occur high in the atmosphere and are about the size of a grain of dust.
"The great majority are these tiny particles moving through the atmosphere at a high rate of speed," Hall told the paper. "Larger ones tend to me moving more slowly and produce a much larger trail through the sky."
Steve Kates, a resident of Chandler, Ariz., and a science journalist known as "Dr. Sky," told the Republic that the physical description and especially the reported "whoosh-ing" noise were consistent with meteoric activity.
Kates told the paper that an object the size of a human fist could have produced Sunday’s celestial event.
There also appeared to be several sightings as far away as Yakima, Wash., though one broadcast report said calls began coming in around 9 p.m. Pacific Time — more than two hours before the New Mexico/Arizona sightings.
Check out the comments with this Longview (Wash.) Daily News account: They seem a lot more blase about sky shows in Washington state than in New Mexico or Arizona.
But maybe that 9 p.m. time isn’t so far-fetched. The New Mexican in Santa Fe contacted the National UFO Reporting Center (why didn’t we think of that?) in eastern Washington state which reported getting calls about "something in the sky" Sunday night, with most of the calls coming from Colorado.
The reports to the UFO center began with the report of a fireball over Seattle around 9:26 p.m. New Mexico time, the New Mexican said.
Other calls came in from Winslow, Ariz.; Cheyenne, Wyo.; Cascade, Colo.; Hartsel, Colo.; and Raton, the New Mexican reported.
Peter Davenport of the UFO center told the New Mexican that similar lights were reported Sunday night from Roseville, Calif.; Boulder, Colo.; Silver City and Las Cruces.