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On the evening of Wednesday 27 May, residents of northern Turkey were treated to a spectacular light show. Videos on social media show what appears to be a meteor streaking across the sky, before exploding in the air with a thunderous boom.
Turkish news website Daily Sabah reports that a “ball of light” was visible in several provinces at around 8:30 pm local time, including Artvin, Erzurum, Sivas, Tuncel and Ardahan. Social media videos also show the fireball as seen from Erzincan and Trabzon.
It’s an amazing sight, filmed from multiple angles, clearly showing that the object exploded at a significant altitude. It’s not yet confirmed that the object was a meteor, but news outlet Hürriyet reports that meteorologists have assessed it as what we’d expect from a “meteor shower”.
— Corona Güncel (@Coronabilgi) May 27, 2020
In addition, this behaviour is extremely consistent with space rocks that have the misfortune to enter Earth’s atmosphere. That’s because most meteors that reach our planet’s atmosphere don’t actually make it to the ground; not intact, at any rate.
We’re under a pretty constant bombardment of space rocks, actually. It’s estimated that millions of meteors and micrometeors enter Earth’s atmosphere every day. Most of these are tiny, between sand-size and pea-size, and burn up before we even know they exist.
A much smaller number of larger ones comes through every year, and they’re the meteors we usually spot. Many turn into spectacular fireballs in the sky, called bolides – like the object that lit up the sky over Turkey.
Footage shows a supposed meteorite falling from the night sky, witnessed by people in northern Turkey.pic.twitter.com/Ps1LVsbEOO
— DAILY SABAH (@DailySabah) May 27, 2020
NASA’s fireball database has recorded 822 such bolides since 1988 at time of writing, an average of around 25 per year, distributed pretty randomly around the globe. Since most of Earth’s surface is water – around 71 percent – this is where most of the meteors explode.
We’re still not entirely sure of the mechanism behind why space rocks explode in our skies, but scientists think it has to do with the thickness of the atmosphere. As the rock falls through the sky, air pressure in front of it builds up.
According to this air pressure model, that build-up causes high-pressure air to seep through minute pores and cracks in the object. In turn, this increases internal pressure inside the rock, which causes it to spectacularly explode several tens of metres in the air, raining smaller debris onto the ground below.
A meteorite was seen over the skies of Turkey at approx 20:30 local time! ☄?
— Faytuks News ? (@Faytuks) May 27, 2020
You’d think this would be fairly dangerous, but interestingly, not many people have been hit by space rocks.
Less than a handful of cases of a meteorite hitting someone as it fell have been recorded, and even fewer cases of death by meteorite – the best evidence for death by meteorite was published earlier this year – based on records of a bolide over the Kurdistan Region of Iraq back in the 19th century.
We’re still waiting on confirmation on whether the fireball that lit up the Turkish sky on Wednesday night was indeed a meteor, but it certainly fits the profile.