Mystery object over Polk County: Plane, meteor or contrail?


An expert at OMSI says it was likely a contrail

DALLAS, Ore. (KOIN) — No one is sure what fell from the sky over Polk County on Thursday.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office initially called the object caught on camera at about 4:45 p.m. a “large fireball” but later said it was likely a meteor.

Witnesses first reported it as a plane crash but officials said Friday there were no reports of any downed planes in the area.

Jim Todd, the space science director at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, said his immediate thought was that it was a meteor.

“It could be associated with this meteor shower that we are in right now called the Leonid but the Leonid is in the morning,” Todd said. Another brief, rich outburst of meteors known as the alpha Monocerotids was also a possibility.

But Todd said there simply isn’t enough information to confirm that it was a meteor. He said it may have been a contrail.

Merriam-Webster defines a contrail as “streaks of condensed water vapor created in the air by an airplane or rocket at high altitudes.”

“A lot of people want to believe its a fireball; that’s the answer they want to hear rather than the contrail,” Todd said. “If we don’t get any more data, then it will probably be — definitely be — a contrail. But if we see it on security cameras, that’s really going to be the indicator.”

Todd said accurately identifying the object comes down to interpretation and information.

A series of images taken by Richard Romano in Polk County, Nov. 21, 2019. (Courtesy of Richard Romano via Polk County Sheriff’s Office)

Richard Romano took still images of the object as it fell. He said he was working on his tractor and went to check his mail when he noticed a small plane in the sky.

“I heard a ‘boom’ and I looked up [in the] same direction the plane was flying — a big fireball fell out of the sky and I go, ‘Oh shoot,'” said Romano.

According to the American Meteor Society, a bright fireball can create a sonic boom, though it’s rare. It can happen when a very bright fireball enters the stratosphere and explodes; however, because sound travels slower than light, people usually hear the sonic boom minutes after they see the visual explosion.

But Romano doesn’t think the object was a meteor.

“I hope it wasn’t an airplane,” he said. “I know it wasn’t a meteor, I’ve seen too many of those.”

Romano reported it to the sheriff’s office. Deputies sent out a search team, fire crews and the U.S. Forest Service. Life Flight deployed a helicopter on Friday and the Civil Air Force also went to check it out.

OMSI Space Science Director Jim Todd, Nov. 22, 2019. (KOIN)

The key issue is where the pictures were taken, according to Todd. Understanding the object’s projection and what direction it was facing could help determine what it was.

“At the angle that it was at, it was a perfect angle to show a contrail reflecting off the clouds,” said Todd.

He said a fireball “should have been seen as far as Seattle, Portland, Coos Bay; anyone who had clear skies should have been able to see it because it was 60 miles up.”

Whatever it was, it certainly sparked speculation and discussion.

Todd is encouraging anyone living in the area to check their security cameras to see if they captured anything to help figure out what the object was.

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