My wife and I were walking the dog tonight, 26 Oct, heading back toward our house on Darcy Woods Ln in Fuquay Varina, NC. We were walking NE and marveling at the beautifully clear and dark sky. At about 2325 local time (0325 UTC 27 Oct), for some reason, she asked me where Cygnus is, and I turned toward the west to locate it. A moment later, a bright moving light appeared, moving left just out of the Summer Triangle, at an upward angle to the horizon, and rapidly brightening. At first I thought it was an Iridium flare, but as it continued moving, it was quickly obvious that it was traveling too fast and lasting much too long for that. We watched in awe as the object traveled about 120 degrees of arc from the west to the southeast in the space of at least 20 seconds, reaching I estimate about mag -4. About 5 seconds before it faded, the object broke up into first two and then three pieces and then disappeared about 15 degrees above the horizon just to the right of Rigel. There was no luminescent trail, no bursts, no terminal explosion, and no sound, as is sometimes reported with bolides.
Allowing for the geometric effects of the changing viewing angle, I can’t say that I perceived any slowing in the object from start to finish. This suggests to me that the object had a high ballistic coefficient, i.e., had a high mass and low surface area, and slowed to non-incandescent velocity due to a terminal breakup near the North Carolina coast SE of my location, going dark perhaps still over land. I wonder whether whether any fragments will show up.
All in all, a magnificent phenomenon, and by far the longest-lasting and slowest meteor I have ever seen, though probably not the brightest. Because it was moving so relatively slowly and lasted so long, it occurred to me that this might have been a re-entering manmade object. But in my personal (and professional) experience, its speed was too great for it to have been a satellite, even at the height at which re-entering orbital objects become incandescent, 60-70 miles or so. On the other hand, it traveled at only a fraction of the speed of a meteor. Whereas meteors blaze a brief and shockingly fast trail, this object made its way in what I can only call a stately, unhurried procession across the sky. Its appearance and pace reminded me very much of the home movie of the great Yellowstone near-miss of 1972. According to calsky.com and aerospace.org, the next expected orbital-object reentry is the Abrixas X-Ray telescope satellite, NORAD catalog number 25721, on 31 Oct 2017, and even if this had come down prematurely, it would not have made a visible pass over my location tonight, so I believe that what I saw was indeed a low-and-slow bolide.
Full disclosure: I have been an amateur astronomer for 60-plus years, and I have always been oriented toward satellite-awareness, having spent the first four years of my working life in the U.S. Air Force Spacetrack program