Giant Meteor Fireball Explodes Over Northwest U.S.

John Roach
for National Geographic News
February 21, 2008
A meteor zipped across the U.S. Pacific Northwest sky early Tuesday morning before exploding, possibly littering eastern Oregon with marble- to basketball-size space rocks, an expert says.

Impact sites are yet to be found, according to Richard Pugh, a scientist with the Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory at Portland State University in Oregon.

Pugh is coordinating a search for potential meteorites. He said 40 to 50 eyewitnesses have contacted his lab to report the fireball.

According to the reports, the event happened around 5:30 a.m. PT on Tuesday. The meteor was first spotted over Washington State moving in an east-southeast direction.

"The light was bright enough to wake up people even though the shades were pulled, and then the sonic boom hit, rattling windows and making the dust fly, and the dogs crawled under the bed," Pugh said.

"And following the heavy boom, in a number of cases we have rumbling a few minutes later. This kind of sound effect usually indicates there are rocks on the ground."

Pugh added that descriptions of the explosion suggest the meteor was rocky and likely sprayed debris over several square miles.

Finding Fragments

Preliminary analysis of the reports indicates any surviving rock fragments are located in the prairie outside the town of Pendleton, Oregon, or in the nearby Blue Mountains (see map).

Given the likely small size of any impacting fragments in a rural area, chances of recovery are slim, Pugh noted.

"Our hope is that somebody got a rock through a barn roof out there somewhere," he said.

(See related photo: "Mysterious Space Object Crashes Into House" [January 5, 2007].)

An impact site, he noted, may resemble a divot on a golf course. The rocks could penetrate several inches in wet ground.

Over the next few weeks, Pugh and his colleagues will analyze all the reports they receive and plot out an area of potential impact.

They'll then hold public meetings in the region to tell people what to look for on the ground.

Any eyewitnesses of the fireball are encouraged to call the Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory at (503) 287-6733.

Early Sighting

According to Mike Fergus, a spokesperson with the Federal Aviation Administration in Seattle, Washington, a private single-engine jet called in a sighting of the fireball Tuesday morning.

Several other pilots also reported seeing a bright flash.

"But nobody had seen the meteor body itself, nor the impact," he said.

According to the Adams County sheriff's office in Ritzville, Washington, early reports of an impact site in southeastern Washington are false.

Pugh noted that fireball sightings are relatively common in the Pacific Northwest, usually several times a year. Tuesday's, however, was bigger than most.

"This one was just exceedingly bright and produced an awful lot of noise," he said.

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