SW USA Fireball December 31st, 2011

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The American Meteor Society has so far received approximately 50 reports of a bright fireball over much of the southwestern states of the USA,  from Colorado to California.  Most of the reports have come from Arizona and New Mexico. This event occurred at 8:15pm MST Saturday evening December 31st.

NASA scientists were able to capture this event on video cameras located in Las Cruces and Mayhill, New Mexico and calculate that the object, only two inches in diameter, entered the atmosphere between Las Cruces and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and traveled a short distance to the northwest toward the Arizona border. The calculated magnitude was -8, which is slightly inferior to the light produced by a half moon. The entry velocity was also calculated to be 16.2 miles per second and the ending altitude was 51 miles. This object was a random fireball as it did not belong to any known meteor shower.  Many thanks to Bill Cooke of NASA for providing these figures so soon after the event.

Links to videos of this event are available at:






Also thanks to Thomas Ashcraft for his two videos obtained near Lamy, New Mexico.

A fireball is a meteor that is larger than normal. Most meteors are only the size of tiny pebbles. A meteor the size of a softball can produce light equivalent to the full moon for a short instant. The reason for this is the extreme velocity at which these objects strike the atmosphere. Even the slowest meteors are still traveling at 10 miles per SECOND, which is much faster than a speeding bullet. Fireballs occur every day over all parts of the Earth. It is rare though for an individual to see more than a few per lifetime as they can also occur during the day (when the blinding sun can obscure them), or on a cloudy night, or over the ocean where there is no one to witness them. Observing during one of the major annual meteor showers can increase your chance of seeing another bright meteor.

Fireballs often appear much closer than they really are. The AMS receives countless reports that an object landed just over the hill when in fact it was several hundred miles away and was witnessed over several states. It is your perspective that makes meteors appear to strike the horizon when in fact they are still high in the atmosphere. This is much like a jetliner seen low in your sky. It appears low to you but for someone located many miles away in that direction, the jetliner is passing high overhead. Meteors become visible at approximately 60 miles above the Earth’s surface. Friction slows these objects down until they fall below the velocity necessary to produce light. At this point they still lie at least 5 miles high in the sky. They are invisible below this altitude and cannot be seen as they basically freefalling to the ground at 200mph. Very few meteors actually reach the ground as 99.99% completely disintegrate while still 10-20 miles up in the atmosphere.

In the AMS fireball table, refer to event #1626 for 2011.

Clear Skies!

Robert Lunsford



  • Billy 12 years ago

    I live in Key West Florida and I saw two different meteors last nite January 1, 2012 a little after midnight 15 minutes apart.

    Reply to Billy
  • Janine Cuthbertson 12 years ago

    On the night of December 31st, 2011 our group of 15 friends was staying at the Betty Bear Hut in the Holy Cross Wilderness near Aspen, Colorado. We were at 11,100 feet and the skies were clear. We were sitting around the dinner table in front of the large viewing windows over looking the mountain range when one friend facing the windows shouted “A shooting star!!” We all turned around to look out and saw a very bright, very large light moving down across the horizon toward the West. It seemed to be moving very slowly. The first people in our group to view it said it was yellow, and by the time the rest of us caught a glimpse the light was bright green. Then it dropped behind the mountain peaks but we continued to see the glow for another few seconds. None of us could believe our eyes! It seemed very close, as we all thought it might land right in Aspen (20 miles away.)
    Since we had no cell service or internet access there was no way to look it up or read any reports. We were all so curious to know what it was! Thank you for posting this report.

    Reply to Janine
    • amsadmin 12 years ago

      Janine, you witnessed a fireball that entered the atmosphere over southwestern New Mexico. For more information check of the article and videos of this event on our home page at: http://www.amsmeteors.org

      Reply to amsadmin
  • Samuel Chapman 12 years ago

    I saw a distinct orange red object moving from the area of the star Formalhaut towards Pollux and Castor at exactly 1830hrs on 12/31/11 in Charlotte NC. There was no sound, no tail that I can discern, and no nebulous glow. It was distinct and irregular-shaped in its borders, About the time it was approaching the over head point it began to diminish in intensity due to, I think, atmospheric haze as it moved away from Earth. It did seem to arc away, towards Pollux and Castor. There was several airplanes in the area at the time. The one overhead at the time seemed to arc to the west of this object.
    A very interesting sight to see.

    Reply to Samuel
  • diana morgan 12 years ago

    I was on my way to st johns from phoenix. I saw the fireball pass overhead on the 60 about 10 miles from show low az. it was about 8:30 and it was blue with a fire tail.

    Reply to diana

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