By Vanessa Romo
A ‘flaming basketball’ meteor in the sky recently made headlines after it was claimed to have hit a house in northern California and set it on fire.
The home, which is on a cattle ranch in Nevada County, about 60 miles from Sacramento, was destroyed. Its owner, Dustin Procita, was left shaken by the seemingly bizarre accident.
Local eyewitnesses took to the internet, posting images and video of a brilliant yellowish light in the sky, heading towards the earth. Neighbors told arriving firefighters they heard a thunderous sound around the same time the fire allegedly started.
“They said it was a one in 4 trillion chance,” Procita exclaimed to local reporters, hours after the 800-square-foot home was burned to the ground.
Turns out Procita may have been unlucky, but not this unlucky.
Did anyone else just see that crazy flash light up the sky? Captured by my dashcam in El Dorado Hills, CA. pic.twitter.com/4BlzOB5ISD
— Derek Schnell (@DerekKCRA) November 5, 2022
The cold hard truth about falling meteorites
Scientists who track meteorites are skeptical that this tragedy was caused by a rock falling from space.
In fact, Peter Jenniskens, a meteorological astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., told NPR that the moment a meteorite would have hit the Earth, there was probably not much left of the falling rock – probably a rogue piece of the South Taurids meteor shower which is famous for producing the brightest fireballs during the month of October.
Part of Jenniskens’ job is to find meteorites. To do this, he often uses Doppler weather radar to track their descent. Meteorites can fall into the Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of 20 to 33 kilometers per second. They travel so quickly that the heat and friction cause the fragments to break or melt, leaving very little to study, he explained.
Sometimes larger chunks come through, hitting land or water.
“But in this case, it probably isn’t,” he said, adding that he was confident in the conclusion based on data gathered by Doppler weather radar scans of the area.
Weather radar often picks up the sound of falling rocks, mistaking it for hail, according to Jenniskens. “And in this case, it was not seen. So we don’t think there was enough material surviving for the radar to get a signal.”
He also noted that according to his team’s calculations, the fireball that eyewitnesses saw in the sky would have landed about 37 kilometers away. – nearly 23 miles – away from Procita’s house.
“To most people looking up they look like they’re really close. But they’re not,” Jenniskens said.
In this case, 120 eyewitnesses from as far north as Grants Pass, Oregon, south to Greenfield, California, a stretch of more than 500 miles, reported seeing the streaked meteor.
Finally, Jenniskens added, falling space debris does not start a fire on the ground. Yes, they are called fireballs because they light up the sky, but they never emit flames, he said.
“I don’t think it could have come together. [the house] on fire because the rock just wouldn’t be hot enough. He would have had time to cool down on his way down,” Jenniskens said.
When they finally hit the ground, he said, “they land cold.”
Famous Outer Space Rocks
One of the most famous of these alien rock incidents occurred in 2010, when a half-pound meteorite hit a doctor’s office in Virginia at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. .
“He went through the roof. He [went] through a wall partition and then through a particleboard ceiling into the floor of an examination room,” Linda Welzenbach, meteorite collection manager at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, says Space.com at the time.
More recently, a doghouse that was hit by a meteorite in 2019 brought in more than $44,000 at a Christie’s auction At New York. At the same sale, the real rock that punched a hole in the metal kennel sold for over $21,000.
Coincidence is not synonymous with causation
Fire Captain Clayton Thomas, who is leading the investigation into the Procita Nevada County home fire, said that by the time the first fire crew arrived at the home, “it was completely engulfed by fire”.
Even as firefighters battled the blaze, others in the area told the incident commander they saw “some type of flaming object fall to the ground,” Thomas told NPR.
He noted that November 4 – the night of the fire – was the peak of the Southern Tauride meteor shower which put on a spectacular show over northern California. He said that in almost every report received by firefighters, “people felt he fell just close.”
This included Procita. “The resident and one of his nearby neighbors heard a loud crash, and when he came out in front of the building, the porch was on fire.”
Procita managed to save a dog from the flames and tried to get inside for a second, but couldn’t save him. The dog died in the fire, according to Thomas.
As the investigation continues, he said, he is not dismissing the outer space theory, but is looking at more typical causes of residential fires, including electrical problems, possible leaking of gas or smoking material.
A strong believer in the scientific method, Thomas said: “It was a coincidence that there was a loud noise audible to several people in the neighborhood at the time of the fire. And there was a meteor shower and there were people who witnessed something luminous falling from the sky around the same time.”
“But coincidence is not synonymous with causation.”