The reporting of common sky events like bright meteors often gets completely mangled when no one bothers to check first with those who know something about the subject.
A TV commercial that's currently airing shows a white-coated physician in the street trying, and failing miserably, to operate a jackhammer. The narrator says, "You wouldn't want your doctor doing your job, so why are you trying to do his?"
I thought of that this week when I read a report about how pilots who'd been fighting the Springer Fire in central Colorado were spooked on Wednesday, June 20th, by reports of a "meteor shower" in the area. In response, officials decided to ground two heavy air tankers and four single-engine craft for a couple of hours. My initial response was, "C'mon, really?"
A little digging turned up the specifics. At around 12:40 p.m. Mountain time, a dramatic daylight fireball was seen by many folks in Colorado, as well as in Wyoming, Nebraska, and New Mexico. The cause was probably a space rock a few inches to a few feet across, though veteran observer Chris Peterson says that with no smoke trail, no video, no radar, and no reports of sonic booms for this event, we'll never know for sure. Peterson estimates that the interplanetary intruder entered the atmosphere over northeastern Colorado, more than 150 miles from the fire zone — not to mention that it probably incinerated itself at least 40 or 50 miles up.
In any case, the multiple sightings (misinterpreted as multiple events), combined with one air-tanker crew reporting something in the sky near its plane, led officials to err on the side of caution. "It was a unique situation," says Richard Zuniga, a spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, during which "we rely on the pilots" to take the best course of action.
Make no mistake: I've got the greatest respect for firefighting teams. But Wednesday's situation underscores that officials in all kinds of decision-making positions — from firefighters to police dispatchers to news-media assignment desks — know little about what's going on in the sky and space above them. Peterson tried to channel accurate information to numerous news organizations, but, he laments, "It's not easy."
I know what he means: some months ago, several reporters in the Boston area called me to verify that a strange metal rod, having punched its way through a roof, was a chunk of space debris. Clearly it wasn't, but that didn't stop the reporters from going on air with the story anyway.
The broader point here this: I don't know much about fighting fires, so if my house starts burning I'll quickly call in the experts at the local fire station. In turn, I'd ask that they make an effort to call me if someone runs into their station claiming to have seen a meteorite hit the ground that was smoking (nope), sizzling (afraid not), or oozing something green (ha!) after it landed.
At last check, Sky & Telescope's online directory of clubs and organizations has nearly 1,800 entries in the U.S. and another 1,800 elsewhere in the world. That's a whole lot of local, knowledgeable folks willing to volunteer their services. Now, maybe you don't have a personal meteorite collection, but I'll wager someone in your club does. You know that a bright meteor's momentary flash looks nothing like the slow-motion track of a satellite passing overhead. And we've all come across folks who see Venus blazing in the evening sky and swear that it wasn't there the night before.
So let's try to inject a little more cosmic common sense into the local dialogue. One of the best ways is to reach out to radio and television meteorologists in your area. Think about it: those weather forecasters are likely the only ones in their newsrooms who've had any real scientific training. They are, literally, the station scientists. You can start by sending them a head's up for an upcoming meteor shower or a widely visible pass of the International Space Station. Once they realize you're a local resource for things astronomical, they'll be more receptive to enlisting your help for sky-related stories.
Who knows? You might even end up being interviewed on camera — in which case don't forget to comb your hair and wear a nice shirt!