WATCH | 'Almost certainly a meteor': Astronomer clears air on flash in Cape sky

17 January 2019 - 09:49 By DAN MEYER and TANYA FARBER

Cape Town and the areas surrounding the mother city took to Twitter to show what they believe to be a meteorite which streaked the sky on Wednesday night.

A scientist at the SA Astronomical Observatory says Wednesday's night's flash in the sky over the Western Cape was "almost certainly" a meteor.

Dr Daniel Cunnama, a science engagement astronomer at the observatory in Cape Town, told TimesLIVE on Thursday: "It was almost certainly a meteor. It would have burnt up in the atmosphere and not hit the ground.

"The estimate of the size would be less than a metre when it hit the atmosphere. That is still pretty big, but not big enough to make it to the ground in one piece."

Cunnama said the observatory did not detect the meteor with its telescopes but  "there was one report from the Pan-STARRS team (the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System located at Haleakala Observatory) in Hawaii, in the US."

"They have a preliminary report of a close-approaching object but that is not confirmed yet," he said.

Cunnama described a meteor as "a small rock coming from space — an asteroid or similar" and said "it would have hit our atmosphere and burnt up in the upper atmosphere as the air pressure on it increased."

Such events are "actually quite common", according to Cunnama. "A hundred tons of space rock debris enters the atmosphere every day, but for it to happen at night and somewhere where it is visible to humans is less common." 

Witnesses from across the Cape turned to social media to share their experiences and validate their sanity, with many in disbelief about what they had seen. 

Karlien Willemse, 25, saw the “bright light” of the explosion reflected in the waters of the dam she was fishing in near Durbanville, saying that it was a “sea-green colour and red on the outside”.

She added: “At first we thought someone had lit up a flare. We didn’t hear the bang but we heard something that sounded like a gas stove fizzing.

"It was weird, we thought it was a shooting star maybe, but it was massive. It was like New Year's Eve with one amazing firework.”

Paarl residents Martin and Sandie Hill were enjoying the sunset when they saw the meteorite.

“We were sat in the lounge in front of the big window and saw a big streak of light,” said Martin. “I said, ‘Sandy, see that? Shooting star just landed in our garden!’ She said ‘don’t be stupid, it’s a firework!’”

“Definitely wasn’t a firework,” he said. “She said I was really getting old but I said ‘wind your neck in love, that’s definitely something special.”