A police officer on the search for speeding drivers captured an unexpected celestial event: a meteoric fireball streaking across the sky.
On Tuesday, police Sgt. Tim Farris was parked in front of Central Fire Station in Portland, Maine, when his dashboard camera captured a meteor entering the atmosphere in an explosion of light. The bright flare was complemented by Sergeant Farris’s exclamatory “Oh, my God.”
“You never know what you are going to see on duty,” the Portland Maine Police Department said in a tongue-in-cheek Facebook post with the video of the meteor. “Sgt. Farris was looking for speeders while parked in front of the central fire station and was able to observe some visitors "from away"....far away. The meteor (or alien spaceship) was caught on camera at approximately 0050 hours.”
While the meteor was a shocking site for Faris and the residents of New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and parts of Canada who happened to glance up at just the right time, meteors burning up as they enter the Earth's atmosphere aren't completely rare. A similar scene was captured in Thailand in September.
Fortunately, most meteors burn up before reaching the Earth, and the majority of those that do land in unpopulated areas.
However, a few isolated incidents in which people have been killed have raised questions, such as how dangerous are meteors striking Earth and how prepared are scientists to detect them.
“The probability of an asteroid striking the Earth and causing serious damage is very remote but the devastating consequences of such an impact suggests we should closely study different types of asteroids to understand their compositions, structures, sizes, and future trajectories,” says NASA says on their website.
Stephen Nelson, an environmental sciences professor with Tulane University, calculates the odds of getting killed by a meteor at about one in 250,000, the Monitor reported in February. For perspective, the average person is four times more likely to die in a flood (one in 60,000) than be killed by a meteor, but still much more likely to be killed by a meteor than win the lottery (one in more than 195 million).
And NASA is working to make those odds even lower. The agency’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office monitor space objects that could be damaging if they entered the Earth’s atmosphere. NASA has already identified more than 13,500 asteroid or comets.
Likewise, the NASA Orbital Debris Program Office keeps track of “space trash” that humans have put into orbit around the Earth. Space debris has recently been a growing concern for the safety of astronauts and space missions, but not for people on Earth.
“Asteroid detection, tracking and defense of our planet is something that NASA, its interagency partners, and the global community take very seriously,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in the agency’s news release in January.