A large fireball streaking across the region Thursday night was probably a massive meteor, astronomers said Friday.
Scientists at Washington State University and Eastern Washington University agreed on one point: Whatever people saw was huge.
Moscow, Idaho, resident Lynda Ballard was driving north near that city shortly after 7 p.m. when she spotted a fast-moving object burning through the night sky. It was headed northwest, generally toward the Spokane Valley, she said.
Others said it seemed to come down near Hayden Lake, Idaho.
“It was actually very beautiful,” said Ballard, a Washington State University secretary. “It had a brilliant green color that was brighter and more intense than any airplane or planet.”
She insisted the object couldn’t have been man-made.
Since people in Idaho, Oregon and Montana also reported seeing it, astronomers are concluding it must have been a meteor.
But where it came down is anybody’s guess. It may have burned up in the air.
“If I were a betting person, I’d guess it never hit the Earth at all,” said EWU astronomy professor Bob Ruotsalainen.
Scientists say at least several hun dred space rocks - most of them very small - slam into the Earth’s atmosphere daily.
Because the planet’s atmosphere burns up nearly all of them, only a few actually hit the planet.
“About four or five meteors end up hitting the earth in a typical day,” said WSU astronomer Julie Lutz. Scientists call those rocks that survive and hit the planet meteorites.
It is hard to guess if Thursday’s meteor ever hit the ground, she added, because witnesses can’t be sure of the size or distance of the object.
“Each observer only sees a small part of the atmosphere and unless you’re right under it, you can’t be sure of its exact path,” said Lutz, chairwoman of WSU’s astronomy department.
Despite how bright it appears, a meteor could easily be 20 or 50 miles away but leave the observer thinking it’s within walking distance, she said.
She’s also convinced a meteor large enough to be seen in four states could have come down intact.
The best way to determine if the object was a meteor is finding it and proving it came from space.
Ruotsalainen said most meteorites have a rocky composition that’s not much different than most Earth rocks. In that case, lab analysis is needed to prove it is a meteor.
A less-common group of meteorites is easier to identify, he said.
Those are dark and heavy, made of large amounts of nickel and iron. Because of their density, those meteors have the best chance of making it through the atmosphere.
“Whatever it was, I knew it was not a flare and it didn’t act like fireworks,” Ballard said.
The largest known meteorite to hit inside the continental United States was found in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. It weighed about 15 tons.