Pittsburghers rang in the new year with a big ol’ meteor explosion


Silhouette of a astronomy telescope with twilight sky.

A blast happened over the skies of Pittsburgh on New Year’s Day, and it wasn’t fireworks. Residents of the southwestern Pennsylvania city were greeted Saturday morning with a loud boom and a shaking feeling that some described as an earthquake or explosion. But there were no signs of either actually occurring. Instead, meteorologists from the National Weather Service have another answer: It was a meteor.

Here’s what we know about the apparent space-based disturbance that greeted Pittsburghers on the first day of 2022. The explosion, for a lack of a better term, happened at around 11:20 a.m. local time, according to USA Today. Residents reported hearing a sound similar to fireworks. Some managed to capture audio of event, which produced a booming sound that could certainly be mistaken as part of some New Year’s celebration. But it wasn’t just a boom: According to The New York Times, some residents said they could feel the floor moving under them. One person said it felt like the aftershock of an earthquake. But there was nothing in the skies to accompany the sound or the feeling.

Nothing showed up on the seismograph, either. The tools that would capture the rumbling of an earthquake, even if it was just a small seismic event, didn’t register anything at the time of the reported explosion. And there was nothing on the radar that would have suggested any sort of weather event that would produce such a boom — no storm clouds, no odd weather formations, nothing out of the norm. Even the possibility of human-related causes were quickly eliminated: Planes don’t move fast enough to produce that kind of boom in the air, and even if they did, they are at a high enough altitude that we wouldn’t hear them back on the ground.

That left one last reasonable — albeit extraterrestrial — explanation: a meteor.

The National Weather Service (NWS) in Pittsburgh arrived at this explanation after spotting a flash that was captured by one of the agency’s satellites. The tool is supposed to spot lightning, but there were no indicators that suggested lightning is what appeared on the radar. “This flash does not appear to be connected to any lightning activity in the area,” the NWS explained in a post on Facebook. “One possible explanation is that a meteor exploded at some level above the ground.”

NASA confirmed the suspicions Monday, filling in some of the blanks with evidence from an infrasound station that registered the blast. According to a Facebook post from NASA, the explosion was “from the meteor as it broke apart.” The agency said the boom was produced by an explosion that had the same energy as 30 tons of TNT. “If we make a reasonable assumption as to the meteor’s speed (45,000 miles per hour), we can ballpark the object’s size at about a yard in diameter, with a mass close to half a ton,” the agency wrote.

Per NASA, if it hadn’t been cloudy over Pittsburgh that day, the sky likely would have lit up with the sight of the exploding meteor, which would have appeared as a fireball with the brightness 100 times that of a full moon. That’d put any New Year’s fireworks display to shame — though it does feel like the marketing campaign for Netflix’s Don’t Look Up has gone a bit too far.