Sonic Boom Shakes Australia as Rare Green Meteor Lights up the Sky

· 4 min read
A meteor streaks across the sky above Cairns, Australia, casting a stunning green glow / Cairns Airport

In a breathtaking spectacle, the tranquility of the Australian night sky was shattered as a vibrant green fireball, a rare kind of meteor, burst into a brilliant display of light and sound. This celestial event, not merely a sight to behold but also a bone-rattling sonic boom, stirred up excitement and wonder among the inhabitants of the vast continent.

Seen from hundreds of miles away and captured on numerous videos, this dramatic occurrence brought a moment of cosmic marvel down to Earth, inviting us to reflect on the intriguing mysteries of our universe.

A Breathtaking Cosmic Display

On the evening of May 20, at precisely 9:22 p.m., the calm, dark expanse above Cairns Airport was suddenly pierced by a brilliant green fireball, an exploding meteor, or 'bolide'. This stunning celestial object rocketed across the sky, its incandescent green flash morphing into a secondary white burst that illuminated the surrounding darkness.

Huge meteor lights up the night sky over Cairns, Australia

Alongside this captivating visual spectacle, a thunderous sonic boom echoed through the nearby town, shaking its foundation and startling the unsuspecting residents.

This extraordinary event didn't go unnoticed. Its radiance was so intense that it was spotted from places as remote as Normanton, a locality situated a whopping 370 miles (600 kilometers) west of Cairns. The mesmerizing display was captured on various devices – from dashcams to smartphones to security cameras, each recording further validating the grandeur of this spectacle.

Croydon, a town located about 60 miles (100 km) east of Normanton, bore witness to the most distinctive auditory effect of the meteor's explosion, suggesting it detonated in the sky overhead.

Delving into the Science of Bolides: What is a Bolide?

Before we dive deeper, let's understand what a bolide is. In simple terms, a bolide is a meteor that explodes in the Earth's atmosphere due to intense friction, resulting in a sonic boom and a burst of light.

Rare Bolide Meteor Illuminates the Sky over Bude, Cornwall, January 2020 / Chris Small/Ocean and Earth Photography

While all meteors light up when entering our atmosphere, not all meteors are bolides. The distinguishing factor here is the explosive burst and the resulting sonic boom, specific to bolides.

The Physics Behind the Phenomenon: The Green Flash Mystery

This intriguing phenomenon is a result of fast-moving space rock, ranging between 1.6 and 3.2 feet (0.5 and 1 meter) in size, plunging into our atmosphere at speeds that could reach a staggering 93,000 mph (150,000 km/h).

The friction between the meteor and the atmosphere generates extreme heat, causing the space rock to glow and eventually reach its breaking point. This culmination of heat and pressure results in the bright flash and the significant sonic boom associated with bolides.

A view of an iron-nickel meteorite cross-section / Chuck Sutherland

The mesmerizing green flash that sets this meteor apart is a result of its unique composition. Most bolides emit white or yellow light, but in this case, the green hue was caused by a high concentration of metals, such as iron and nickel, within the meteor.

These elements, when superheated during atmospheric entry, emit a characteristic green light, adding an extra layer of intrigue to this already fascinating event.

The Frequency and Impact of Bolide Occurrences

Contrary to what one might expect, bolide occurrences are not as rare as they seem. Approximately 3,000 were detected between July 2017 and January 2022. However, the majority of these events often go unnoticed by people on the ground due to their occurrence in less populated areas or over the vast expanse of the oceans.

A stunning view from the International Space Station captures a fireball, a notably bright meteor from the Perseid meteor shower, streaking through Earth's atmosphere / NASA

While many bolide events go unnoticed, some have caught the public eye. A notable example occurred in August 2022, when a suspected bolide originating from the Perseid meteor shower took Utah residents by surprise with a loud explosion. These occurrences, while startling, often serve to remind us of the vast and mysterious cosmos that lies beyond our earthly home.

NASA | NPP Sees Aftermath of the Chelyabinsk Meteor

Despite their allure, bolides can pose significant threats, especially when they are larger in size. A stark reminder of this potential danger was the Chelyabinsk incident in Russia in 2013. A 20-meter meteor exploded over the city with an energy equivalent to 500 kilotonnes of TNT, shattering windows in 3,600 apartment buildings, causing a factory roof to collapse, and leaving people with skin and retinal burns. It served as a reminder that while these celestial events can be awe-inspiring, they can also be a source of potential danger.

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