Mystery Of The Fireball
From The Sky Deepens
By Stephanie Hanes - Salisbury Monitor
SALISBURY - Ron Baalke of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab saw the story about the meteorite in a small New Hampshire town online. It seemed a spectacular occurrence - meteorites are rare to begin with, but it's unheard of to see one land on Earth still burning. So, on his California computer, he forwarded the news to a London-based electronic network that disseminates information on catastrophic asteroids and cosmic disasters.
The "CCNet" published Baalke's post about the supposed Granite State meteorite, and sky-minded scientists across the world read the news.
Salisbury, New Hampshire, was famous.
Since Paul Kornexl and Donna Ayoub saw a fireball plummet from the sky into the woods behind their houses Monday evening, Salisbury and its potential meteorite have gained worldwide attention. While Kornexl, Ayoub and her husband, Dave, continued to scour the muddy ground yesterday for extraterrestrial signs, scientists from New Mexico to Moscow - aided by the more-familiar science of the Internet - were conjecturing on just what happened behind quiet Hensmith Road.
The first report that had come out of Salisbury said a meteorite had landed in the woods behind 129 and 137 (which are next to each other) Hensmith Road. The blazing softball-sized object had started two small fires in the dried leaves Monday evening, and neighbors had rushed to douse the flames.
"It's a little weird for my book," said the fire dispatcher Monday. "I've never had anything drop out of the sky on my watch."
By the time firefighters arrived on scene the blaze was extinguished. But the curiosity wasn't.
Kornexl had been standing next to his shed when he saw the fireball land.
"I was dumbfounded," he said.
The next day, when a scientist from the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium examined the scene, and other experts pieced together the reported details, the explanation of a meteorite seemed less and less plausible.
A meteorite would not have been burning when it hit the ground, scientists said. It would have left a crater when it landed and it would not have come in on an arc like residents described.
But the woods were deserted. Kornexl, who spent six years in the Army, said the scenedidn't fit with any weapon he knew of. And air control and military officials said there was nothing overhead at the time.
So the question lingered. What sort of unearthly visitor had shown up in Salisbury?
The conjectures started coming in yesterday morning. Robin Griffith, who lives outside Houston, Texas, said the New Hampshire fireball was similar to a flash of light she saw from her deck back in July.
"If it had streaked I would have thought it was a shooting star," she said. But she added that her siting was exactly the same - she didn't see her ball of light fall to the horizon.
"I don't believe mine was what y'all had," she said. She gave the name of a scientist in Russia who had studied her incident. Andrei Ol'khovatov had read the posting on CCNet and had asked her to get more information about the New Hampshire incident.
Ol'khovatov had his own opinion. "It was probably not a meteorite," he wrote in an e-mail, "but a geophysical meteor (high-speed ball lightning). I investigate these events for some years."
Ol'khovatov's Web page has scores of information about incidents of geographic meteors, what he describes as a rare type of electric atmospheric discharge like ball lightning. He suggests TWA Flight 800 and other airline disasters may have been caused by this natural phenomena. Salisbury's fire could be just the latest incident.
Richard Spalding, a senior engineer at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, a U.S. Department of Energy national security lab, had his own theory. Apart from the lab, Spalding has studied flashes in the atmosphere - of which meteors are one sort and lightning another.
"This particular article is reminiscent of quite a number of events I've looked into in which people claim they've seen a fireball come all the way to the ground," he said. "I think they are an electrical manifestation - akin to lightning but with nothing to do with thunderstorms."
Spalding said evidence of this sort of event could be gained by analyzing some leftover material at the site.
"It's quite possible there are some radioactive trace elements that are formed by the ions," he said. The Ayoubs, he said, agreed to send him some ground samples. "If found, there's no mistaking something very strange had occurred. There's only one way those elements could be created. It requires high energy radiation."
Scientists conjecturing on the Salisbury mystery got more information from residents yesterday as more people came forward with reports of seeing the fireball.
Phil Plait, who works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and who developed the Web site to clear up misconceptions about his science, said he spoke to more Hensmith Road residents who saw the flame.
"I really, strongly feel it's not a meteorite," he said after hearing the residents' descriptions. "I, unfortunately, don't have a good alternative explanation. Unless it was something thrown from a distance. Sometimes these things are mysteries forever."
But if the bright light New Durham resident Ron Nordquist saw Monday night was the same fireball, it couldn't have been an object simply thrown over the trees.
Nordquist said he saw the glowing ball as he walked his dog around 5 p.m.
"It was like the brightest star you've ever seen," he said. "It was going down instead of going across the sky. It seemed like it was going in slow motion, even though it happened in seconds. I looked at the dog and I said 'did you see that?' "
Nordquist mentioned the site to his brother on the phone that night. It wasn't until he read the paper that he made a connection.
"I got my map book and looked for Salisbury. And right away, when I saw M6 or whatever the page was, right away I started getting goose bumps. I looked up New Durham, I looked at Salisbury. And I said to myself, 'my goodness, I'd seen that.' "
The scientific search is still on.
Sandt Michener, a scientist at the planetarium, said while he still doesn't believe the object was a meteorite, he thinks the incident is worth investigating further.
"There are a lot of ideas, but it's just so many possibilities," he said. "If it is a meteorite, or if it's something else, it's unusual enough to merit an investigation."
Phil Plait's Follow-up