Huge Fireball Meteor Lights Up Sky Over Illinois

The space rock created a sonic boom, and pieces of it crashed into Lake Michigan.


A large meteor was spotted last night streaking through the sky over northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin around 1:30 AM Central time. The meteor flashed in dramatic blue-green light as it burned up in the atmosphere, a spectacle that was captured by multiple cameras. The American Meteor Society (AMS) has received more than 185 reports of the meteor across the Midwest, and they are asking anyone with photos of the event to contact them.

Mike Hankey with the AMS said the meteor created a sonic boom that shook houses in the region. The large space rock, estimated to be about the size of a car, flew over Lake Michigan, and pieces of the meteor “most definitely” impacted in the lake.

“The cloud of debris was picked up on NOAA’s NEXRAD Doppler Weather Radar, so this is a definitive source that rocks made it all the way down,” says Hankey. “Reports of sonic booms also suggest it survived passage through the upper atmosphere.”

A meteor that lights up in the sky more than average is called a fireball, and the AMS classifies a fireball as a meteor brighter than magnitude -4. Last night’s meteor was much brighter than that however, as many stars in the night sky are brighter than magnitude -4, which is about equivalent to Venus at its brightest. The exact magnitude of the meteor last night is not yet available, but it “rivaled the brightness of the sun, and we can tell that by the shadows it cast in some of the videos,” says Hankey.

Several thousand fireballs occur in the Earth’s atmosphere each day, though most go unnoticed because they occur in remote locations, during the daytime, or while most people are asleep, according to the American Meteor Society. The extraordinary brightness of last night’s meteor makes it a much rarer occurance, however, and it may be classified as a bolide—”a special type of fireball which explodes in a bright terminal flash at its end, often with visible fragmentation.”

The AMS has been monitoring the NEXRAD Doppler Weather Radar for meteors since the late 1980s, having spotted about 10 large meteors since 2009. Last night’s meteor, weighing at least 600 pounds and possibly much more, was “on the larger end of anything we’ve seen,” says Hankey.

Meteorite hunters are out of luck however, as the impact in Lake Michigan means fragments of last night’s meteor cannot be recovered and studied. “Unfortunately this was over water and only missed land by a few miles,” laments Hankey.