Highway 71 goes from Austin
to I-10 via Bastrop, Smithville,
La Grange and Columbus.
This segment of the highway sees a lot of traffic, since it is one
of the two basic routes from the Capital City to Houston.
Headed back to Austin from
Houston, we were between
La Grange and Ellinger
when in my peripheral vision I saw a sudden change in light to the
northwest. Instinctively, I turned to look in that direction just
in time to witness the brightest, most colorful meteor I have seen
in six decades of living.
An exceptionally large, greenish fireball flashed across the sky ahead
of a bright orange tail. It looked like a shot from a giant Roman
“Did you see that?” I said in genuine surprise.
“No. What?” my companion responded.
But by the time she looked up, it was gone, a stellar flash in the
The fireball streaked across the Texas sky about 8:40 p.m. on November
When we stopped at Ellinger
for kolaches, a quick online check via smartphone brought no reports
of crashed space debris or an Orson Wells-ish Martian landing, but
by Sunday morning, news of the sighting had made CNN and various Texas
television station websites. In a state of 26 million or so people,
multiple thousands must have seen it. Social media sites were abuzz.
Not surprisingly, with virtually everyone packing Star Trek-like devices
capable of good quality photos and videos, by sunup at least two images
of the meteor had been posted. A video dash camera in San
Antonio picked up the meteor, as did a better still photo that
showed the colors I had seen. At least two other videos were posted
later in the day.
Turns out, I may have witnessed a fleeting artifact of something that
happened when Texas was still an independent republic. Or at least
that’s one theory.
American Meteor Society, which had logged 420 reports of the Texas
sighting by mid-week, said the meteor might have been a piece of debris
from a comet first observed in 1842. When Comet 3D/Biela broke up,
it created a debris field called the Andromedid. That field produced
some notable meteor showers in the 19th century, but has been less
vigorous for decades.
Not as specific in his reaction, NASA’s Dr. Bill Cooke, head of the
space agency’s Meteoroid Environment Office, said the meteor could
have one of several origins. What he was certain about was that the
light it briefly produced was about five times brighter than a full
moon. Sightings were reported all over Texas, and in New Mexico.
The astronomer estimated the meteor must have been about four feet
wide, weighing 4,000 pounds. That, he said, was a good-sized chunk
of space rock.
While the internet makes it easy for modern Texans to learn more about
the November 8 event, seeing the fireball got me thinking how such
a bright meteor would have affected the long-vanished ones who left
all the prehistoric rock art in canyons along the lower Pecos River.
doesn’t take much imagination to picture how something as vivid as
the apparent relic of 3D/Biela could have impacted Texas’s earliest
human inhabitants. Not burdened with an understanding of science,
those people were free to sit around their fires and come to their
own conclusions about things they saw above.
Imagine, centuries before urbanization would lead to the light pollution
that has robbed us of the ability to fully appreciate the night skies
without having to drive all the way to McDonald Observatory, how intense
a large meteor like the one that flamed out so spectacularly last
week would have looked to those hunter-gatherers.
Some primitive peoples took such events as deeply spiritual, seeing
a bright meteor as an act of their deity or the passage of a soul.
Others took a more earthy approach, interpreting meteors, no matter
their beauty, as nothing but falling star feces. Later Texans, with
slightly more knowledge, would talk and sing of making a wish “upon
Contrary to all that fun folklore, the “shooting star” that blazed
across Texas did not portend good or bad. Sure, in a world with 7.1
billion people, someone probably died at the very moment the meteor
burned as it entered the atmosphere over Texas, but someone as surely
was born. Still, that vivid if short-lived light show did serve as
an excellent reminder that in the cosmic scheme of things, time is
When you witness something that could be a direct manifestation of
an astronomical phenomenon that happened 172 years ago you can appreciate
that while effect must surely follow cause, no law of nature mandates
how quickly – or slowly – that must happen.
© Mike Cox
- November 13, 2014 column
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