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That Weird Fireball Thing You Saw In The Sky Wednesday Night? We Have Answers

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The strange object lighting up the night sky, 29th Jan 2020 (courtesy American Meteor Society)
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A glowing fireball streaked across the sky over Los Angeles Wednesday night, so Angelenos naturally took to Twitter with questions -- and jokes. Is it a true meteor, or just space trash?

And there were more poignant theories: Was it Kobe saying his final goodbye?

"Once it exploded I was just like, whoa, maybe that's not a meteor, but that's really cool. And I watch a lot of anime so I'm already thinking, okay, what's coming to earth," says Kitty Contreras, who watched the fireball outside of her house in Rancho Cucamonga.

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A MYSTERY

The sighting also puzzled the meteor-watching community.

  • Taking into account reports from those who say it, the community initially estimatess the object traveled across the sky for about 20 seconds.
  • Scientists figured that was too slow for a natural asteroid.
  • Plus, it disintegrated, suggesting that it was a man-made object, not a solid hunk of rock.

"There's mysterious stuff up in space that we don't know, you know. Not aliens, but just junk," said Mike Hankey with the American Meteor Society. They put out a report identifying the fireball as space debris.
AN ANSWER

Turns out there was a wrinkle in their judgement. NASA tracks 500,000 pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth, and no space debris had been scheduled to fall to Earth around the time of the fireball sightings.

So what was it? Thursday afternoon, after reviewing camera footage, NASA found the answer.

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"It was just a piece of an asteroid burning up in Earth's atmosphere and that's what people in Southern California saw last night," said Bill Cooke, the head of NASA meteoroid division.

He said eyewitness reports hadn't accurately estimated the speed of the meteor, but cameras from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the American Meteor Society had been able to do so.

If you're curious enough to go look for the asteroid piece - good luck. It's a couple inches across, and if it's anywhere, Cooke said, it's probably in the Pacific ocean... off the coast of Tijuana.