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Q: Identifying a bright object ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   6 Comments )
Subject: Identifying a bright object
Category: Science > Astronomy
Asked by: dominiccko-ga
List Price: $15.00
Posted: 25 Nov 2002 10:41 PST
Expires: 25 Dec 2002 10:41 PST
Question ID: 114304
I recently recalled a childhood memory of having seen something streak
across the sky. At the time I thought it must be a comet. This was in
1969 or 1970 (or there abouts) in Montreal, Canada. But having thought
about it again as an adult, I realized that comets do not 'streak
across the sky'. This object, whatever it was - was visible for less
than a minute. It appeared to be directly overhead and awfully close.
I remember it also lit up the whole street (it
was night time and I think it was winter). The object had a long
(colourful?) tail (which I think was extending behind it) and it was
moving roughly east to west.

Can you find any reference to this “object” or was I dreaming?

Thanks in advance

Request for Question Clarification by ephraim-ga on 25 Nov 2002 10:46 PST
How brightly did it light "up the whole street"? There was visible
light you saw reflected on objects on your street?


Clarification of Question by dominiccko-ga on 25 Nov 2002 11:06 PST
Well, this was a while ago, but I seem to recall that the only reason
I looked up was because the street was suddenly lit. Was it as bright
as day? Not likely but maybe close.
Subject: Re: Identifying a bright object
Answered By: bethc-ga on 25 Nov 2002 18:41 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hi dominiccko,

I believe that the object lighting up the sky that you remember was
the Comet Bennett.

Here is a recollection from another young enthusiast in the Northern

“One event that certainly accelerated my enthusiasm in observing the
night sky in my mid-teens was the arrival of comet Bennett (C1969i),
shown at left, which lit up the skies of the northern hemisphere in
the spring of 1970.”

The website shows a small photo of the comet.

Some History – One Amateur’s Story

A photo showing just how bright the sky was over Staten Island, NY,
can be found on the website of Scroll down to the
bottom of the page, and you will see an excellent photograph showing
an amazingly bright sky silhouetting rooftop, chimney and trees. The
caption reads: “Comet Bennett was a spectacular comet visible in the
morning sky during the spring of 1970. There was little publicity for
it because its appearance was fairly sudden.”

The mention of little publicity would explain why so few, outside of
astronomy buffs, remember the comet’s name.


Here is another description:

“Under observation with the naked eye from Feb. until mid May, T=1970
March 20. Brilliant, long-tailed comet which is considered by many to
be one of the finest of the 20th century.

“In late March crossed Aquarius and Pegasus, visible from the Northern
Hemisphere as a stunning morning object of zero magnitude at
considerable elongation from the Sun. Telescopically exhibited
extraordinary spiraling jets of bright material being ejected from the

Ever wonder what comet you saw in 1976 or which comet you grandfather
saw in 1910? This page will answer those questions...
John E. Bortle
W.R.Brooks Observatory
Copyright 1998ŠJohn E. Bortle

The following short excerpt mentions the movement of the comet that
you remembered:

“Two scenes concerning this comet are forever imprinted on my memory.
The first is of watching the comet rising tail first over the rooftops
across the road on March 28.

The page also contains two excellent photographs, showing a brilliant
sky illuminating rooftops and power lines.”

Comets of the 1970s

Another account echoes your impression that the comet moved quickly:

“The comet was known as Bennett's Comet, and it was one of the biggest
and brightest ever to be recorded in history. Its length was recorded
at taking up 15 to 20 degrees of the 180 degree night sky. It was as
if it was moving so fast, yet standing still in the eastern skies.”

A Priceless Memory

Searching a little further on cometary behavior as regards movement, I
came across this, in a list of facts on comets:

“Flash erratically across the sky followed by luminous tails”

Comet Quick Facts

So, dominiccko, it seems that you were not dreaming, but were one of
the lucky observers of what is considered to be possibly the greatest
comet of our time. It is no wonder that you have retained this vivid
impression of brightness and movement.

Should you need further information on any of the above, please do not
hesitate to request clarification. Thanks for an interesting search!



Search criteria:
comet 1969 OR 1970 -mercury -ford  (to eliminate automobile
comet bennett 1969 OR 1970
comet behavior

Request for Answer Clarification by dominiccko-ga on 25 Nov 2002 21:05 PST
Thanks Beth. Appreciate your work and willing to accept your answer.

Have to admit though, I am not entirely convinced. The memory
(granted, not at all reliable after 32 years) is of the object's
sudden appearance and disappearance - in a matter of minutes, not

Is it possible that Bennett moved with that kind of 'speed' - it is
not really clear from the accounts.

Clarification of Answer by bethc-ga on 26 Nov 2002 06:09 PST
Hi dominiccko,

Let me do a little more research into cometary behavior. There was
mention of the suddenness of Comet Bennett and the movement of it, and
it seems unlikely that there could have been anything else in the
skies at that time that was so notably brilliant.

Let me see what else I can find.


Clarification of Answer by bethc-ga on 26 Nov 2002 08:22 PST
Hi dominiccko,

I have found that meteors are typically of shorter duration than what
you recall, lasting only seconds, not minutes:

“Meteors. Small rocky and/or icy particles that are swept up by the
earth in its orbit about the sun. Also called "shooting stars", they
travel across the sky in a very short time, from less than a second to
several seconds…”

PRESS INFORMATION SHEET: Comet C/1996 B2 (Hyakutake)

Many of the accounts that I have found of Comet Bennett spoke of its
apparent movement. The description from “Comets of the 1970” above
relates, “watching the comet rising tail first over the rooftops”. And
the amateur account from “A Priceless Memory” above includes “It was
as if it was moving so fast, yet standing still in the eastern skies.”

And again, from the article “Comet Quick Facts” there was the mention
of flashing across the sky”

“Flash erratically across the sky followed by luminous tails”

Comet Quick Facts

Is it possible that you had the impression that it moved quickly? 

I checked on all reports that I could find of meteors or fireballs  in
1969 and 1970, I found reports of very bright meteors or fireballs
sighted over Mexico, Australia and Britain. Those that were
referenced, showed up multiple times in my search, and so it is
unlikely that something as bright as you recall would have gone
unnoticed and unremarked if it were a fireball or meteor.

The Perseid meteor stream, and another called the Orionid meteor
stream were sighted during 1969 and 1970, but I could find no mention
of anything more brilliant that what we have seen recently.

I even looked up Skylab’s fall from the sky, but that occurred in
1979, and it fell into the Indian Ocean, so that is definitely out. :

While researching this, I came across some additional information on
the colors that you might remember from the object’s tail.

“Sometimes two tails can be seen, a gas tail which is bluish in color,
and a dust tail that looks yellowish. Because the tail of a comet is
always pushed away from the Sun by solar winds, the tail can be either
in front of the comet or behind it.”

What is a Comet?

I can continue to search further, looking for a meteor or fireball, if
you wish. Can you try to clarify how certain you are of the duration,
the date and the brightness? Which are you most certain of, and which
may not be totally accurate memories? Thanks.



Here is my further search criteria:
fireball OR meteor OR meteorite 1969 OR 1970 Canada 
Perseid OR Orionid 1960 OR 1970
skylab fall OR falling OR fell
"what is a comet" flash OR streak OR move OR flashing OR streaking OR
comet apparent flash OR flashing OR streak OR streaking

Clarification of Answer by bethc-ga on 28 Nov 2002 12:34 PST
Hi dominiccko,

Thank you for the stars and for your comment. I enjoyed researching your question.


dominiccko-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
Thanks again. This is more than sufficient. Well done.

Subject: Re: Identifying a bright object
From: bobbie7-ga on 25 Nov 2002 15:19 PST
Hi Dominiccko,

I was born and brought up in Montreal  and I also remember seeing a
comet like object flying in the sky. The tail was made up of coloured
lights. I believe it was summertime around 1963-1965. I have no
recollection of the sky lighting up though. I was very young at the
time so nobody ever believed me-

Subject: Re: Identifying a bright object
From: iang-ga on 26 Nov 2002 03:54 PST
Sorry, but that answer is simply wrong - comets do not appear and
disappear within a minute! Their movement is much too slow. Also,
while Bennett was bright, that's by cometary standards - it was
nowhere near bright enough to "light up the street".

I think you probably saw a fireball - an unusually bright meteor.
Records are kept of these things but without an exact date it would be
next to impossible to get any details. They're rare, but not that


Ian G.
Subject: Re: Identifying a bright object
From: neilzero-ga on 26 Nov 2002 07:47 PST
I'm still trying to think of a way to say it more tactfully than Ian
G. = Lang. A comet could be bright enough to read a newspaper, but
none were in the 20 th centruy. A comet could appear suddenly in a
hole in the clouds, but upper wind speeds exceeding 400 KMPS would be
necessary to have the comet to be visable for only one minute. A comet
moves from East to West in about 10 hours due mostly to the rotation
of the Earth. Apparent motion is due to clouds moving West to East.
You likely saw a very bright shooting star. There is no upper limit on
how bright they can be. Tiny ones (one gram or less) are seen when
there is a meteror shower, but once or twice per decade, a meteror
some fraction of a ton, enters Earth's atmosphere traveling up to
50,000 KMPH, so it can pass clear across the sky in a fraction of a
minute. Sometimes these big ones are called bolides (spelling?) There
is a slight possibility you saw some kind of aircraft with a rocket
engine or search loght or a vehical piloted by extra-terestrials (if
there are any ET piloted craft near Earth)   Neil
Subject: Re: Identifying a bright object
From: omnivorous-ga on 26 Nov 2002 09:32 PST
Dominicko --

Having seen a similar event in northern Ohio, I was intrigued. 
Clearly the Google search strategy should be:
meteor + location
meteorite + location

It's probably best to have access to a news database, such as the New
York Times, which will have AP or UPI reports from a broad area.  For
example, I found this one from Dec. 9, 1965:
"Orange Fire Flash Seen Over 6 States"  
This UPI report describes an object seen over southern Canada and from
New York to Michigan.

Best regards,

Subject: Re: Identifying a bright object
From: iang-ga on 27 Nov 2002 01:38 PST

I was intending to be brief, not rude. I'm sorry if I gave offense!


Ian G.
Subject: Re: Identifying a bright object
From: roadrunner_-ga on 27 Nov 2002 23:32 PST
Perhaps what was seen on the occasion(s) in Montreal as well as some
of the others like the New York to Michigan sighting could be the
re-entry of a spacecraft in the Gemini or Apollo series' of flights. 
The heat shields were designed to burn away (or ablate) an amazing
thickness of material during re-entry, especially the Apollo series. 
This ablation process was designed to carry heat away from the
spacecraft by becoming very hot (by bumping into atmospheric
molecules), and then sliding over the side carrying the heated matter
away from the craft.  The re-entry phase of the flight lasted quite a
number of minutes, and a very fiery trail of burning particles would
be left in the wake of the returning spacecraft.  However, the
aerodynamic pressure, which causes the heating, would not be at it's
maximum for the entire duration of re-entry.  It is my impression that
re-entry could last for considerably more than half of one orbit, but
that the period of *radio blackout* was on the order of a small number
of minutes.  The blackout was caused by the inability for radio
signals to sent either to or from the spacecraft due to ionized
particles flowing around (and surrounding) the spacecraft during the
period of re-entry known as the *maximum dynamic pressure* phase.  
These periods were known since the Mercury-Redstone days and were
generally only of a minute or so in duration, (if memory serves) but
some consternation was generated around the consoles of Mission
Control during the re-entry of the Apollo-8 command module with
Bormann, Lovell and Anders on board, because communications was not
re-established for what seemed like too many minutes.  The time period
was several minutes longer due to the much higher speed of re-entry
since they were coming from the vicinity of the moon.  They arrived
here travelling at approximately 25,000 MPH and up until that time all
the other spacecraft began their descent travelling at approximately
17,000 MPH.  The difference can be thought of by thinking that earth
orbital flights hit the earth's atmosphere after falling from a height
of (very roughly) a hundred miles but the trans-lunar flights were
falling to earth (roughly) from a height of 5/6ths of the moon's
distance, or a fifth of a million miles.  These periods of *maximum
dynamic pressure* would be the times when the heat shield would be
glowing at it's brightest and the material would me ablating most
violently, thus producing a long, hot glowing wake (tail) which would
appear to cross the sky in a relatively short number of minutes, and
should be very bright at it's peak since the altitude at this time
would be only a few dozen miles.  Some people even hear the sonic boom
produced by re-entry.
     As to identifying what you saw, one would need to know times and
dates to compare with known times of these flights, or flights of
other space programs.

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