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Falling object lights up sky in eastern U.S.

A burn mark believed to have been left from the space debris is seen on this corn leaf  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Residents along the Eastern Seaboard reported seeing and hearing a fireball from space hit the Earth on Monday evening.

CNN Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre was with a guest at the Pentagon looking westward out his office window around 6 p.m. when he saw a flash in the sky headed toward Earth.

"It got brighter and brighter. Halfway up in the sky, it sort of evaporated into a bright flash," he reported.

Though it was a bright, sunny day in Washington, it was easy to see. "This downward arc of flaming object was bright against the sky. Then it appeared to evaporate in a burst of flame," he said.

CNN talks to some eyewitnesses about the mysterious object they saw (July 24)

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The whole thing lasted little more than a second, he said. "I said, 'Wow! Look at that! What's that?'" to his guest. "By the time he turned around, it was gone."

In Lewisburg, Pennsylvania., CNN Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno was driving a car, windows rolled up, the air conditioning on, when he heard "what sounded like a sonic boom." But when he rolled down the windows, he heard nothing.

"It was the talk of the town," in Lewisburg he said. One person described it as a "ball of flame."

About 35 miles to the northwest near Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Chief Jerold Ross of the Larry's Creek Volunteer Fire Department was investigating a scorched section of a corn field measuring 25 feet by 20 feet.

Witnesses who had been watching deer said they saw a fireball fall into a corn field.

"I'm not sure there's any solid matter there," Ross told reporters. "It looks like scorched corn. I'm not sure there was any impact other than some form of fireball."

Radiation and air quality tests taken at the site showed normal readings. Ross said there was some dust at the scene and added investigations would continue in the morning.

Local and state police said their phone banks had been lit up with calls from northern Maryland to Upstate New York.

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, meteorite expert Ron Baalke said he had received word from several people describing "a bright fireball" that appeared at approximately 6:15 p.m. EDT.

Authorities investigated this field near Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where witnesses said they saw the fireball fall  

He said the object was not likely to have been part of a meteor shower. "We're not near the peak period of any of the major meteor showers," he said.

Baalke works on the Near-Earth Objects Program at JPL, which monitors the positions of all asteroids that approach the Earth.

He said witnesses in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York also reported hearing sonic booms, in some cases several of them.

Since each separate object would create its own sonic boom when it exceeded the speed of sound inside the Earth's atmosphere, the fact that several booms were heard indicates the object may have fragmented in the atmosphere, he said.

Witnesses said the object appeared to be traveling from southeast to northwest, "which means it was heading inland," Baalke said.

Sonic booms are capable of being heard up to 100 miles from an object's path, he said.

It is hard to judge the size of a space object based on the fireball, he said. "It depends on the composition ... and the speed it was traveling. It could have been as small as a baseball."

It would have hit the ground traveling between 100 mph and 200 mph, he said. "The atmosphere slows it quite a bit."

Most meteorites -- anything that hits the ground from outer space -- are pieces of asteroids or comets, and are mostly made of stony material. In rare cases, they contain nickel iron. "You can't tell until it's recovered."

The object probably came from the "main asteroid belt," an area between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, where most asteroids -- pieces of space rock -- can be found, he said.

Since no known asteroids were expected to pass near the Earth on Monday, whatever was responsible for Monday's sightings was probably small, he said. "We would have tracked a big one, and known it was coming."

The smallest size object the lab can detect is 10 to 20 meters in diameter, but Monday's was probably much smaller than 10 meters, he said.

"Something that size would have made a much more dramatic entrance into the atmosphere."

Most fireballs tend to be caused by small objects, under 200 pounds, he said.

Thousands of residents of Peekskill, New York, got a similar show October 9, 1992. Several people who were videotaping a football game wound up with video of the space traveler's flaming course through the atmosphere. In that case, a 27.3-pound meteorite was discovered in the trunk of a 1980 Chevrolet Malibu. It cut through the lid of the trunk and came to rest underneath the car, having cut a path a few inches from the gas tank.

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