SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – Social media was filled with photos, videos and questions Wednesday night about the bright light and strangely illuminated smoke contrail seen in the skies that were visible across the Bay Area and California.
Dozens of people called and emailed the KPIX 5 newsroom asking what the phenomenon was, but the reason behind the light and smoke initially was a bit of a mystery.
“It was far too big to be a firework,” said Gus Graves of San Francisco. “I’m thinking it’s some sort of high-tech rocket that they’re working on, possibly? Or aliens. One of the two.”
“I was thinking it was a jet or something,” said Kira Bulger of Oakland. “Like a fighter pilot that was leaving a crazy streak in the sky.”
Bing Quock, assistant director of the Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences, said that the Lick Observatory determined the mysterious light trail was a bright meteor.
“A very bright meteor that fell through the atmosphere, and it took place shortly after sunset so that the contrail that was left behind was still lit by the sun,” Quock said.
He said that the reason for the meteor trail’s question mark shape was high level wind in the atmosphere.
“And when upper winds in the atmosphere blew the contrail into nicely contorted shapes that looked like a strange glowing curlicue in the air that baffled a lot of people. But very likely just a bright meteor.”
Shortly before 7 p.m., the National Weather Service posted on Twitter that, while not 100 percent confirmed, the object seen was probably a meteor.
Many took to social media to post pictures of the phenomenon. Reports of the sightings were made as far away as Sacramento, the Tahoe area and Southern California.
KPIX newsroom Assignment Editor Brian Dinsmore took several photos on his drive home in the East Bay.
In some photos, a large illuminated circle was visible on the top of the smoke plume. There appeared to be an increasing likelihood that the object was a meteor burning up in the atmosphere.
There was some initial speculation that the lights could be related to a scheduled rocket launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base, but that launch was scrubbed early Wednesday evening.
Last October, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried an Argentinian Earth-observation satellite into space before the rocket’s first-stage booster landed back at its California launch site, creating an uproar across California with the unusual contrails the launch left in the sky.