Speculation ran rife online after Inverell Times reader Lawana Hillhouse reported seeing a strange light moving over the town on Thursday night, November 23, at approximately 9.45pm.
“It was sort of round and real red,” Lawana said. She watched the object, which she initially believed was a fireball, move at a medium pace towards Moree.
“I thought it was some sort of weird weather event,” she said.
Meteors, ball lightning, burning space junk and even aliens were among the many possible explanations given, as the Higgins Storm Chasing website reported similar sightings across NSW between 9.30-11pm.
Astronomer and scientist Barry Gilbert was watching the sky in Moonbi, 20 kilometres north of Tamworth on Thursday night. He saw an unusual light to the west before midnight.
“I only saw the tail end of it, but it was a green flame with a bit of a trail, bright but moving reasonably slow - not quite as fast as a meteor,” he said. He said it was moving towards the ground.
“I thought it might have been a bit of space junk because of the colour. It had a slight greenish tinge to it and I thought that might have been a bit of metal in it, a bit of copper or something.”
An anonymous local witness reported watching a neighbour ignite a large fire lantern around 9.20pm and release it into the sky.
“I watched it for ages before it floated away,” they said.
“It’s definitely what it was as the pictures were exactly what it looked like as it floated away.”
Higgins Storm Chasing agreed that a sky lantern was the most likely explanation.
“Given the height the lantern would have climbed to in 15min this is what she would have taken a photo of,” they said on Facebook.
Sky lanterns are banned from supply in Australia due to the risk of starting fires.
Lawana was unconvinced by the sky lantern explanation.
“It seems so wide - how could it keep burning for Dalby and Queensland and then Newcastle and Tamworth?” she asked.
Barry said the light he saw was not a sky lantern, and said the sightings could be separate occurrences. He said there were many reasons lights could be spotted in the night sky.
“You always try to provide a rational explanation,” he said.
Most sightings are due to electrical disturbances such as fireballs from lightning storms, space junk or meteorites. Barry said aircraft was usually easy to identify, but sometimes their flashing lights can confuse onlookers.
The space station is another slow-moving object seen in the sky, and has solar panels which can reflect the sunlight and cause a bright flash.
“Venus is always a bit of a problem when it’s around,” he said.
“Quite often people traveling in a car might see Venus and they think it’s something following them.”
He said this was a common misconception due to its great distance from earth.
“When you’re driving it’s always the same place in the sky and it gives an illusion that it’s travelling alongside you.”