Update 2/27/13 14:20 EST – The chart above, provided by Rob Matson, displays the reentry track for the Chinese rocket body CZ-4B. This rocket was launched on May 10, 2012, from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in China. There is no doubt that the display seen in the sky over Texas and Louisiana this morning was caused by the reentry and subsequent disintegration of this spent rocket. Many thanks to Rob Matson for taking the time to calculate this orbit and making it available for us to share.
Update 2/27/13 12:56 EST – It looks like the fireball seen from Texas and Louisiana may be the re-entry of a Chinese rocket body launched in 2012. http://www.aerospace.org/cords/reentry-predictions/upcoming-reentries/2012-021c/
The American Meteor Society has received 30 reports of a bright meteor that occurred near 3:15am CST on Wednesday morning February 27, 2013 over the states of Texas and Louisiana . What is unusual about this sighting is that this fireball fragmented in mid-flight creating a “cluster” of fireballs that continued across the sky. Brightness estimates of this fireball vary considerably, but the average lies near magnitude -15, which slightly exceeds the light produced by the full moon. Every color of the rainbow has been reported with orange and yellow being most mentioned. Individual reports may be viewed in the 2013 AMS Fireball Table Refer to event #501 for 2013.
For those not familiar with meteors and fireballs, a fireball is a meteor that is larger than normal. Most meteors are only the size of small pebbles. A meteor the size of a softball can produce light equivalent to the full moon for a short instant. The reason for this is the extreme velocity at which these objects strike the atmosphere. Even the slowest meteors are still traveling at 10 miles per SECOND, which is much faster than a speeding bullet. Fireballs occur every day over all parts of the Earth. It is rare though for an individual to see more than one or two per lifetime as they also occur during the day, on a cloudy night, or over a remote area where no one sees it. Observing during one of the major annual meteor showers can increase your chance of seeing another one of these bright meteors.
Meteors often appear much closer than they really are. There is often a common misconception that the object appeared nearby when in fact the actual flight path was several hundred miles away and was witnessed over several states. It is your perspective that makes meteors appear to strike the horizon when in fact they are still high in the atmosphere. This is much like a jetliner seen low in your sky. It appears low to you but for someone located many miles away in that direction, the jetliner is passing high overhead. Meteors become visible at approximately 50 miles above the Earth’s surface. If the meteor survives down an altitude of 5 miles, friction will have slowed the velocity below that necessary to produce light. Therefore they are invisible below this altitude and cannot be seen as they basically free falling to the ground at 200mph. Very few meteors actually reach the ground as 99.99% completely disintegrate while still 10-20 miles up in the atmosphere.
American Meteor Society