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Mystery solved? Officials give answers on streaking light seen in California sky

Mystery light in skies over Northern California

An unidentified streak of light was seen over Northern California after a postponement of a rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
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An unidentified streak of light was seen over Northern California after a postponement of a rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

A streaky white light and curling trail seen in the sky above San Luis Obispo County and across California set off a flood of social media reports Wednesday evening — but it was probably a meteor, according to the National Weather Service.

The meteor caused a unique kind of cloud formation – called a noctilucent cloud – that only occurs when smoke from burning meteors is present.

“When meteoroids hit our atmosphere and burn up, they leave behind a haze of tiny particles suspended 70 km (43.5 miles) to 100 km (62 miles) above Earth’s surface,” NASA said. “It’s no coincidence that NLCs form 83 km high, squarely inside the meteor smoke zone.”

The unknown object appeared right around the time a Heavy Delta IV rocket carrying a top-secret payload was scheduled to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, but officials said it was unrelated to their mission, which was scrubbed 10 minutes before liftoff.

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An object believed to be a meteor left a curling smoke trail in the sky at about 5:40 p.m. on Wednesday, as seen in this view from Pismo Beach. Vivian Krug Cotton

“What you’re seeing in the sky is not anything launched from Vandenberg,” a Vandenberg spokesperson told The Tribune on Wednesday evening, adding that they are aware of reports.

In SLO County, the strange light was captured in photos posted on the SLO County News and Public Safety page.

Local officials, including representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard in Morro Bay, said Wednesday they couldn’t determine what it was exactly, though they don’t believe it to be a flare or a shooting star.

Some on social media speculated it could be a meteor.

Authorities from the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office and Pismo Beach police said Wednesday evening they hadn’t received reports of the incident and were unaware of what it could be.

The light streak was seen throughout California, according to people in Sacramento and Fresno who notified The Tribune.

A Delta IV rocket launch at Vandenberg was postponed because of a hydrogen leak in the engine. It has been rescheduled for 5:31 p.m. Thursday. This is the fourth time the launch has been delayed, either due to weather or technical problems.

Sacramento Bee reporter Claire Morgan contributed to this story.

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.
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