Mysterious bright lights and a winding tendril of smoke lit up skies across California and neighboring states on Wednesday evening. Reports of the fiery display flooded social media, leaving locals to ponder its source. Was it a rocket launch, a fireball, or maybe even the work of aliens?
“I was thinking it was a jet or something,” Kira Bulger of Oakland told local CBS affiliate station KPIX 5. “Like a fighter pilot that was leaving a crazy streak in the sky.”
“It was far too big to be a firework,” said Gus Graves of San Francisco. “I’m thinking it’s some sort of high-tech rocket that they’re working on, possibly? Or aliens. One of the two.”
California’s skies are regularly peppered with the bright trails of rockets blasting off from the Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc. But a take-off scheduled for early Wednesday evening was scrubbed at the last minute.
United Launch Alliance postponed the launch of a Delta IV that was due to blast a National Reconnaissance Office payload into space, after experiencing technical issues. The launch has been rescheduled for Thursday, the company reported.
Experts watching the skies quickly confirmed the bright light was most likely a meteor that soared past at 5:34 p.m. PT (8.34 p.m. ET), after sunset, leaving behind a wispy, curling trail that faded over several minutes.
“A very bright meteor that fell through the atmosphere, and it took place shortly after sunset so that the contrail that was left behind was still lit by the sun,” Bing Quock, the assistant director of the Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences, told KPIX 5.
“When upper winds in the atmosphere blew the contrail into nicely contorted shapes that looked like a strange glowing curlicue in the air that baffled a lot of people. But very likely just a bright meteor.”
The American Meteor Society received more than 100 reports about the likely fireball event—dubbed 5618-2018—from sky watchers in Arizona, Oregon, Nevada and California. The society has already uploaded more than 40 images from people lucky enough to photograph the exciting event.
In January, a meteor tore through the skies above Michigan, lighting up the skies and even shaking buildings with its boom.
Eager meteorite hunters scrambled to find fragments of the space rock in the aftermath of the event. Freelance planetary field scientist Robert Ward lay his hands on probable space rocks just two days later.