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Midnight meteor streaks across Western skies

SALT LAKE CITY - SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A streaking fireball briefly illuminated parts of the Utah sky to daylight-level conditions early Wednesday, surveillance footage shows.

The video from outside security cameras at the University of Utah's Milford observatory shows a blinding flash of light around 12:07 a.m., followed by clear images of the object streaking away.

"It looks like a shooting star on steroids," said Seth Jarvis, director of the Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City.

Although it's too early to say definitively how large the object was and how fast it was going, Jarvis estimated that it was about the size of an oven and was traveling at about 80,000 mph. It broke through the Earth's atmosphere and was probably around 100 miles above the ground when it became visible, he said.

It almost certainly broke up before it reached the ground, he said.

Patrick Wiggins, a volunteer with NASA's ambassador program, was sitting in his home observatory near Tooele when he saw the bright flash through his closed curtains. Several minutes later, he said he heard a sonic boom.

"It was like a low rumble, like thunder," he said.

Utah scientists on Wednesday said it's likely a meteor associated with the annual Leonid meteor shower.

Dave Kieda, chairman of the school's department of physics and astronomy, said meteor sightings aren't uncommon, but to see one this large — and to get much of it on tape — is unusual.

James Scotti, a planetary scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Ariz., said space debris is constantly bombarding the Earth.

"These things are relics of the formation of the solar system. The more we find, see and study, the more we can say about that," Scotti said.

The near-ubiquity of security cameras and video cameras increases the odds that they'll be caught on tape. Using triangulation from different camera angles can help scientists map the trajectory path of these objects and increase the likelihood that bits of the space rocks can be recovered and analyzed, he said.

Scientists with expertise in meteors will use the university's footage to help estimate its size and trajectory.

"We just got lucky and had a surveillance camera pointed in the right direction," said Wayne Springer, an associate professor of physics and astronomy. Springer has been working at the university's new observatory, which is perched on Frisco Peak, about 175 miles south of Salt Lake City.

After hearing news reports about the meteor Wednesday morning, Springer cued up the surveillance tape.

"And lo and behold there it was, this big flash of light," he said.

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