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South Floridians who happened to be looking in the right place at the right time Sunday night saw one spectacular light show – possibly a sporadic meteor.
The Coast Guard began getting flooded with phone calls about 7:30 p.m., with reports of folks seeing flare-like objects from Jacksonville to Key West, according to Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Sabrina Laberdesque.
People called in, describing the flares “as orange or red fireballs in the sky,” Laberdesque said. The display was limited to the sky: No injuries were reported, Laberdesque said.
A sporadic meteor is basically a rocky object that comes from the asteroid belt, said Mike Hankey, operations manager for the American Meteor Society, based in Genesee, N.Y. The group logged 27 reports within about the first two hours of the event, he said.
"This is a lot of reports to come in quickly," Hankey said.
Gauging by the reports, it happened somewhere over the ocean.
"These fireballs are common," Hankey said. "It’s rare for any one person to see one more than once or twice in their lifetime. But on any given night, it might happen somewhere in the globe a few times in a day."
Hankey added: "People should not be scared of the sky falling or anything at all."
Amanda Mayer, of West Palm Beach, said she saw something in the sky and said she thought it was somebody flashing a light. She said she hit record on her camera.
"I was like, 'Wow! That's weird," Mayer said. "I just started videotaping, and that's when it happened."
It turned out to be good timing: The ball of light appeared as she recorded, she said.
"I was pretty sure it was a meteor because of everything else that's been happening," Mayer said.
The Coast Guard said it had suspected Sunday's sighting was a meteor shower, but Hankey disagreed. "Meteor showers usually are much dimmer and faster moving," Hankey said.
After a meteor exploded overhead near Chelyabinsk, Russia, on Friday, reportedly injuring more than 1,000 people, many people elsewhere in the world have wrongly thought that streaks they've seen in the sky, including planes, are meteors, Hankey said.
Traveling at 33,000 mph, a massive meteor hit the Earth's atmosphere creating a giant shockwave that blew out windows of glass, injuring nearly 1,000 people and creating panic. On the same day, an asteroid half the size of a football field came within 17,000 miles from Earth. NBC's Tom Costello reports.
"We’re getting a lot more false reports," Hankey said.
But with false reports, the group tends to receive only one report describing an incident, Hankey said. If the same event is reported over and over in five or 10 minutes, then that’s more likely to be "a legitimate event,” or sporadic meteor, Hankey said.
In South Florida Sunday night, the Coast Guard found that the light streak vanished in an instant. The Coast Guard sent out a helicopter to check out a report of a flare near the MacArthur Causeway in Miami, but found nothing there, Laberdesque said.