More on the California Fireball – Jan 18

More reports of Sunday evening’s fireball have been posted on this blog and the American Meteor Society Fireball page. Thanks to everyone who has been posting! If you would like to make an official report please visit the American Meteor Society’s Fireball Report page. The form is very simple and you don’t need to know any astronomy to make a valuable contribution.

The fireball occurred on Sunday evening, January 18, at ~5:30 pm (give or take 20 minutes). Amazingly this was only ~15 minutes after sunset for people on the coast so the sky was still very bright. The fireball must have been quite a spectacle to be seen against such a bright sky.

Based on the reports submitted so far, it was seen from 4 states (California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona). Here’s a map of the sightings reported so far.

Location of reports for the January 18 early evening fireball. Reports from the American Meteor Society and this blog. Map produced on Google Earth.

Most people said it was a white/blue though a few observers noted it changed into many colors. This is consistent with a meteor. The fireball ended its passage through the atmosphere with a bang, something astronomers call a “terminal burst”. This marks the final break-up, or explosion, of the small asteroid that created the fireball. Many reports also mentioned that a smoky trail was visible for several minutes after.

So what was it? Most likely it was a small asteroid or “space rock”. Probably no bigger than a basketball, it burnt up in the Earth’s atmosphere as it traveled at a speed of a few tens of miles per second. Though it may have looked like it was only a few hundred feet above the ground, it was in fact 40-60 miles up.  It is definitely possible that some small pieces survived to hit the ground.

Turns out a second very bright fireball was seen over northern California later the same night. At least 3-4 people reported a fireball in the San Francisco area at 11:26 pm. The two fireballs are probably unrelated.

So far no videos of the twilight fireball have surfaced. Because the sky was so bright, most of the all-sky meteor cameras were still off. The second fireball was captured by an all-sky meteor camera in Yuba City operated by Richard Spalding. His video can be seen here.


  1. I saw the second fireball (~11:27PM PST) by chance from Embarcadero Rd in Palo Alto CA as I looked up at the northeastern sky. It was a bright white and had a couple of small bright pieces of it break off shortly before the main ball went dim. Very beautiful.

  2. I saw the first fireball. It was between 5:30 and 5:35 p.m.; I called someone to tell them about it at 5:35 p.m., according to my cell phone. I only happened to see it because I was driving in exactly the right direction as I went over a curved overpass in Northridge, CA. As the article said, it looked very close to the ground. I could actually see it break into a few pieces in the terminal burst! It was the most beautiful meteor I’ve ever seen.

  3. Bob-January 21, 2009

    I saw the first fireball heading in north to south direction, in a very low arc in relation to the ground with a very bright white color, like a bright truck headlight shining in my direction, I saw it while walking eastward, being about 10 miles southwest of Los Banos, Ca. I actually thought it might have crashed about 20 miles south.

  4. Hello hope someone still there.I saw a fireball about 3:30 afternoon.Here in Tucson AZ.I was in the car with my husband he didn’t see it but I did.It was just west of Tucson-between Desert Museum and Kit Peak.Taken by surprise to see something like that in daylight.We live in the area.It was my husbands birthday so I thought that was neat.

  5. Hi all,
    I saw a fireball , on January 18 in the afternoon like 5:00 pm. However, it was the most different look fireball I have ever seen . Its color was different, like blueish. I was in in Santa Monica, and it was seen very big, and it had like small pieces following the main big part. It was very close I think. This fireball even made me think of a space-work thing. Maybe not even a fireball, it might be a falling sattelite. Anyway, it was a nice scene. My guess it felt in Souther CA,or Mexico. Anyone knows a scientific data about it ?

  6. yeah! ! ! i new i wasn”t that drunk ! ! i saw it to in southern california city of bell california to be exact , the time i am not sure of but it must have been 5pm closer to six, because the reason i saw it i was BBQ’ing during the AFC championship game steelers vs. Baltimore, all of sudden i was taking a drink of my beer tilting my head back when i saw this awesome light in the sky, looked like a giant sky rocket just traveling horizotally instead of vertical. it was quick, i shouted at others to look but it was gone in matter of seconds, then i was ridiculed for the rest of the night until now.! ! ! i have prooff thanks

  7. I saw the 5:30 pm fireball. It could not have been more perfect! I was traveling with my sister and brother, home from the beach in Davenport California, heading back towards Santa Cruz on Highway 1. Unfortunately my brother who was in the back seat was unable to witness the event, but my sister and I got a front row view.

    It traveled (what looked to us heading South on Highway 1) From left to right at a slight downward angle. It was a gorgeous blue, almost teal, and white. At its last moment it turned bright white and vanished.

    My sister said “Oh my GOD did you see that?” And I said “UM YEAH!” It was super. One of the most beautiful events I have ever seen.

  8. Oh, and PS- (this is Rachel again…)
    Can you imagine it!? The ocean to our right, the sandy cliffs and rolling hills to our right… what people in the movies call “magic hour”- because the sun hasn’t set yet, and its not quite dusk. Everything has this lovely orange/pink hue… and we see this beautiful teal blue “fireball”…
    Ugh. I wouldn’t change the experience for anything (other than maybe a lap dance from Jonny Depp!)

  9. I saw a fireball in the sky last Wednesday, the 4th. It was later in the evening probably around 10pm. Very bright, and it had a trail. It was in Southern Indiana. Did anyone else see that?

    1. Hi Ian,

      I too saw a fireball from San Mateo, California on March 11 around that same time. First time I had seen one.

  10. I saw a fireball from Livermore, California on October 26 at night. I’ve never seen on before. It was big and flaming, really incredible.

  11. I saw the fireball in Maryland, around 5:30 pm on January 18th. It was several seconds and you could see the trail afterwards. My friend even had time to turn around and see it as well.

  12. weird.. i just realized this was 2009 on january 18. not 2010. what are the chances of a fireball on the same day a year later on the east coast???

  13. Just witnessed the fireball tonight. It lasted almost 1 minute. Had a tail as it was falling, then stopped and flew slowly away.

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