Hundreds of people reported seeing a fireball meteor that lit up the night sky across parts of northern England at 9.40 p.m. on Saturday, 3 March. Some excellent footage of the fireball has been posted on YouTube and can be seen on the BBC website here. More eyewitness accounts and footage from webcam at Whitley Bay here.
Police forces reported being inundated with calls reporting sightings from a zone stretching from Peterborough to the north of Scotland.
Of interest was the interpretation initially placed on the sightings by some observers, who called police fearing that a plane had crashed. Adam Hepworth, from Argyll, told the BBC he was leaving work when he saw a bright light moving across the sky.
“At first I thought it was a sky lantern but then I realised it couldn’t have been due to the speed that it was moving. I then thought perhaps it is a plane that had caught fire.”
Perceptive readers will recognise this description from accounts of numerous UFO ‘scares’, such as the Rendlesham incident and the Cosford sightings, which were sparked by fireballs and space junk respectively. Last night’s fireball was visible for more than 30 seconds, which in the past has often people to believe they are seeing an aircraft in flames, a distress flare or, in other cases, a flying saucer.
The Doomsday prophecies surrounding 2012 also featured in the reactions of some who witnessed the meteor. The Guardian reported how the director of the Kielder Observatory, Gary Fildes, was with a group of 30-40 skygazers who were overcome with excitement and wanted to know if it was “going to end life on Earth”.
“We got an incredible view. It was phenomenal,” he said. “I was getting questions about what it is and is it going to end life on Earth? It was massively exciting.”
So far the ‘UFO’ interpretation has not been mentioned, possibly because the footage clearly depicts a classic fireball meteor. The fireball was also seen by a number of astronomers including Adrian West, of Meteorwatch, who believes it may have gone down in the English Channel or the Bay of Biscay.
The sheer number of witnesses is another likely indicator of the meteoric origin of the fireball. But in other cases the re-entry into earth’s atmosphere of space debris, such as rocket bodies and satellites, have led people to believe they were seeing UFOs. Possibly the best known example from the UK happened on New Year’s Eve 1978, as this extract from my book The UFO Files explains:
“….The night of 31 December 1978 was cold and clear, and across the British Isles people were out of doors bringing in the New Year. A few minutes after 7.00 pm many hundreds were amazed to see a bright light with a long trail behind it streaking across the heavens on a northwest to southeast path. In the space of just a couple of hours the MoD received a total of 120 separate sighting reports and civilian UFO groups received hundreds more. The source of this spectacular flap was quickly identified by the RAF’s early warning base at Fylingdales in North Yorkshire as the re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere of a booster rocket that had launched a Russian satellite, Cosmos 1068, into orbit on Boxing Day. The rocket burned up over northern Europe, with pieces falling to the ground in Germany.
“Although most observers gave a sound description of the New Year’s Eve UFO a few provided wildly inaccurate details, particularly of its size and altitude. Exact estimation of the height of an object in the dark sky is extremely difficult, if not impossible. For example, some observers believed the object was as low as 1,000 ft, when in reality it was many miles above the Earth. Others gave a time for their sighting that was one hour or more in error.
“Several described what they had seen in imaginative terms, for example ‘cigar-shaped, very bright, with lighted windows’ (Manchester), ‘similar to a German V-2 rocket’ (Bradford) and ‘train-shaped, 120 ft long tapering at the front with 40 plus bright lights all along the side’ (Newmarket). A few refused to believe the UFO was a Russian rocket at all. One, who served five years in the RAF, said he was familiar ‘with meteors and re-entry of space debris [and] found it difficult to accept the [MoD’s] explanation for this occurrence.’