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Sci-Tech

Fireballs dazzle two continents in a single night

A pair of meteors flame out fantastically over Europe and the US on the first night of the Lyrid meteor shower.

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A fireball lighting up the east coast of the US.

AMS; video screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

Late Tuesday into early Wednesday was a big night for combustible cosmic collisions, as multiple meteors flamed out over some of the biggest cities in the United States and Europe. 

We might have the Lyrid meteor shower to thank for this show. The northern hemisphere's annual spring shooting star bonanza officially became active Tuesday night and is known for producing fireballs. 

One fireball was spotted in skies from Berlin to Amsterdam to Copenhagen just before midnight local time. Later, as midnight approached on the east coast of the US, another meteor was seen burning up as it crashed into our atmosphere. That fireball was spotted at 10:57 p.m. EDT and could be viewed all the way from New England to the Carolinas.

The American Meteor Society received dozens of reports of the European fireball, which is estimated to have flamed out high over Germany, and hundreds of reports of the eastern US meteor that was over Delaware at its brightest moment of disintegration.

Fireballs are actually a very common occurrence that might happen thousands of times every day, but the vast majority aren't very bright, or they're masked by daylight or happen over the ocean and other unpopulated areas and go unseen by human eyes. For two exceptionally bright fireballs to burn up over major population centers in the same night is more rare. 

Most fireballs are actually much higher in the sky than they might appear, generally well above 30 miles, which is why the same fireball was seen from a dozen different US states Tuesday evening. 

There could be more to come this week. The Lyrid meteor shower is currently building toward its peak, Sunday night, when 10 to 20 shooting stars per hour may be visible, though some may be washed out by a nearly full moon. 

Sometimes there can be an outburst of hyperactive meteor activity producing hundreds of visible trails per hour during a shower like the Lyrids. Though no outburst is predicted for this year, there's always a chance, and this early fireball activity is reason to be optimistic.