Portland police Sgt. Tim Farris was on patrol early Tuesday when he witnessed a speeder he never expected: a spectacular fiery streak that lit up the night sky.

The streak was the apparent trail of a meteor burning up as it passed through the Earth’s atmosphere at about 12:50 a.m.

Farris was parked in front of the Central Fire Station on Congress Street looking for speeders at the time, and his cruiser’s dashcam captured the fireball streaking across the sky behind Franklin Towers. The video was posted on the department’s Facebook page Tuesday.

Over in Cumberland, Officer Scott Hendee was on patrol when his dashcam recorded the fireball lighting up the sky.

“Unfortunately, the fireball and large flame trail were just out of the camera’s frame,” the department wrote on its Facebook page. “It was the most impressive one we’ve ever seen!”

The American Meteor Society shared the Portland police video on its website, generating so much traffic it apparently caused the site to crash Tuesday morning. A map posted by the society showed clusters of reports of meteor sightings throughout the Northeast, but most occurred in coastal Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. A total of 516 sightings from Canada to New Jersey were reported as of 6 p.m. Tuesday.

This image of a meteor was posted to the Portsmouth Harbor Webcam Facebook page.

This image of a meteor was posted to the Portsmouth Harbor Webcam Facebook page.

“The fireball was seen primarily from Maine, but witnesses from Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Ontario (Canada) and Quebec (Canada) also reported the event,” the society said on its website.

The society described the meteor as “an amazing experience for witnesses.”

“There was a 3- to 5-minute delay from the time I saw it to the boom I heard and felt, very loud and shook the home, unlike anything I have ever experienced before,” Craig C. of Canton, Maine, wrote in a comment posted on the society’s website.

The society’s Facebook page also had comments from people in Canton and Rumford who had seen and heard the meteor.

The American Meteor Society is asking anyone who saw the meteor to fill out an official “fireball report” through its website.

This dashcam image from a police car in Pittsburgh, Pa., shows a meteor entering earth's atmosphere that a police officer in Portland witnessed at the same moment early Tuesday morning. Courtesy American Meteor Society

This dashcam image from a police car in Pittsburgh, Pa., shows a meteor entering earth’s atmosphere that a police officer in Portland witnessed at the same moment early Tuesday morning. Courtesy American Meteor Society

A meteor is the flash of light emitted by a small chunk of interplanetary debris, or meteoroid, as it burns up while passing through the Earth’s atmosphere, the American Meteor Society website says. A meteoroid that survives its passage through the atmosphere and strikes the ground is a meteorite.

Most meteors become visible while passing through the region of the atmosphere called the thermosphere. This “meteoric region” is between 50 miles to 75 miles in altitude. Most meteoroids, which can vary in size from small grains to 1 meter wide, enter the atmosphere at speeds ranging from 25,000 mph to 160,000 mph, according to the American Meteor Society.

The society’s website said the meteor spotted in the Northeast early Tuesday was a fireball, the term given to a meteor that is brighter than the planet Venus  in the morning or evening sky. Several thousand meteors of fireball magnitude occur in the Earth’s atmosphere each day, but the vast majority occur over oceans or uninhabited regions and many are masked by daylight, the website said.

For many of the people who filed a report on the society’s website, seeing the fireball was a first-time experience. An observation report filed by Joe S. of Gorham described the fireball as a “once-in-a-lifetime event thus far” and “somewhat terrifying.”

“The fireball looked like it had lightning bolts in the middle of it as it came closer to the horizon,” Joe S. wrote. “As it approached the horizon the entire sky turned white as if lightning struck close by.”

Another Maine man, Armando M. of Lewiston, filed a report with the society that described the fireball as white with blue and orange streaks.

“I have seen two fireballs in my lifetime and, as a physics major and amateur astronomer, this was the most stunning sky event I have ever seen,” he wrote.

Barbra Barrett, director of the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum in Bethel, said that based on the eyewitness accounts it collected, the American Meteor Society mapped a trajectory for the meteoroid that shows it appears to have entered the Earth’s atmosphere over Maine and its “terminal explosion” occurred about 30 kilometers west of Rangeley in Franklin County.

Barrett would like people who witnessed the meteor to contact her with information about what they saw, heard or felt. She’s hoping the witness accounts could help identify where the meteoroid would have landed – if it didn’t disintegrate during its trip through the atmosphere – so it could be recovered and included in the museum’s extensive display of meteorites from around the world. She said it is rare for a meteorite to be found in Maine, because most fall in wooded areas or in the water.

“I think there’s a real possibility here to recover the meteorite,” Barrett said. “It’s a unique opportunity for Maine to see and possibly recover a meteorite after seeing a fireball in the sky.”

The meteor sighting in Maine is particularly timely for officials from the mineral museum, who met last week with consultants about establishing the Maine Fireball Network. The museum will set up special cameras throughout the state which, when used together, can determine the speed and trajectory of a fireball and assist in the recovery of meteorite fragments, Barrett said. She said the network will be the first major network in New England.

“While we wish we were already operational, I’m just glad this didn’t happen last week as it would have been one heck of a distraction,” Barrett said. “We are very excited.”

Anyone who saw the meteor Tuesday morning and wants to share information, can contact Barrett at [email protected] or 824-3036. She said the museum will offer a $20,000 reward if a 1 kilogram meteorite is recovered. It will receive a place of honor in the museum’s Meteorite Hall.

The Portland Police Department’s video had more than 151,000 views and more than 400 comments by Tuesday afternoon.

“You never know what you are going to see on duty. Sgt. Farris was looking for speeders while parked in front of the central fire station and was able to observe some visitors ‘from away’ … far away. The meteor (or alien spaceship) was caught on camera at approximately 0050 hours,” the Portland Police Department wrote in its post. “Let’s hope the visitors are friendly. They could just be some of Stephen King’s friends on their way to visit him. Whomever they are, I’m sure we could win them over with a whoopie pie. P.S. The voice on the video stating, “Oh my God!” is from Ofc. (Graham) Hults. Apparently he was amazed.”