As our knowledgeable members have already said, what you are describing fits the description of a meteor, or perhaps even a "fireball", which is
just a meteor that is brighter than most others - it would need to be around the brightness of Venus as seen in the night sky (-4 or -3 magnitude if
it was seen near the horizon) to qualify.
Originally posted by Agree2Disagree
BTW, when I was on starry night just before going out to begin my viewing, it didn't say there were any events for viewing other than Io occultation
Every night tonnes of extra terrestrial material (most of it no larger than a grain of sand in size) enters our atmosphere, so meteors (AKA "shooting
stars") are common. Many of these particles (known as "meteoroids" when they are in space or inside the atmosphere) are random, ie they do not
belong to known
meteor showers, but there are also meteor showers active at almost any given
time of the year
, though most of these are considered to be minor meteor showers. This time of year is actually one of the quietest times of the
year for meteors and meteor showers, but as you found out, it's still possible to observe meteors.
Most of the meteoroids Earth encounters are fine dust-sized particles that are ejected from the surface of comets as they approach the Sun and
"out-gassing" propels particles of comet away from the comet's surface, so you were probably not that far off with your guess that what you saw was
a comet. This is what gives us our annual meteor showers. There are also particles and small chunks of asteroids (even small asteroids) that enter
Earth's atmosphere on a regular basis, so comets are not the only source of meteors and fireballs.
If your experience the other night has wet your appetite, try spending a few hours (or ideally the whole night) observing during the peak of one of
our major annual meteor showers. In a good year, and if you have a little luck, you can easily see a few hundred meteors during a night's observing.
Often you will see a few bright fireballs too.
I would recommend either the Geminids
in December, the
in January or the
in August which is looking to be one of the best showers this year. It's easy to
observe a meteor shower (if the weather cooperates!), but if you do a few things, you will have a better experience and see more than if you don't
Firstly, get well away from man-made light pollution and find an observing site which has unobstructed views of the sky in all directions - the more
sky you can see the more meteors you will see, and if it's a good dark-sky site you can double or triple or even quadruple the number of meteors you
see compared to a light-polluted urban observing site.
Secondly, climb into a sleeping bag (or two if it's not Summer), lay down flat facing more or less directly up, and you will pick up more meteors
than if you are standing or sitting. You will also be more comfortable and more likely to be able to stand observing for a few hours at a time. You
will need to dress warmly on top of this. Ideally double up on everything - you can always easily remove cloths if you get too warm, but if you dress
light, and get cold, you will quickly loose interest in observing! Find yourself a sun-bed (which goes down flat), or a camp-bed, or even an air-bed
to lay down on.
Whilst you can do quite a lot to prepare, you can't always prepare for the sky clouding up (unless you can watch the weather forecast/check weather
satellite data and then drive for a few hours to somewhere that is predicted to stay clear), and it often does if you are nearing the peak of a meteor
shower. However, although you may miss a predicted peak, the nights either side of a meteor shower peak will often be quite good, and occasionally
they may even have better meteor rates that what was predicted to be the peak night - sometimes the predictions are slightly off.
So it's often worth hedging your bets, and planning to observe for a few nights around peak. Doing it this way means you'll usually get to see at
least a few meteors even if the peak gets clouded out. Don't be put of by a partially cloudy sky at the start of the night. It will often clear up
later on, and most meteor showers produce higher rates towards the end of the night, so it's easy to miss out if you are not careful.
Also, sometimes it takes a few attempts at observing a meteor shower before you hit on a good one, so don't be put off if your first attempts are
unfruitful. With patience you will always be rewarded eventually, and the rewards can sometimes be much more than you expect as meteor showers always
have a certain degree of unpredictability.