Weird thing in the sky, it was a ...

The mystery fireball was caused by engine trouble on a test flight of Santa’s sleigh.

That was perhaps the most colorful of the many competing theories from readers who tried to explain what appears to be a fireball in the sky in a video taken by a DeKalb County man last week.

Some also thought it was an experimental military space vehicle re-entering the atmosphere, though one expert dismissed that notion. The most popular theory is the least dramatic: it's an optical illusion created by the setting sun and a plain old jet airplane.

The video was shot by Charsign Raymond of Clarkston when he was visiting a friend in Stone Mountain around 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 28. With a shaky hand, he captured footage of a slow-moving object that appeared to be burning.

People quickly chimed in with dry humor.

One reader speculated that it was "Spock and Kirk ... coming for a humpback whale," in apparent reference to a 1980s Star Trek movie. Another saw it as "the answer to Jonathan and Martha Kent's prayers," in apparent reference to a super-powered son named Clark.

Raymond, 39, captured the footage on the heels of a strange and still unexplained noise dozens of miles to the west. On Nov. 26, at about 9:45 p.m., people in Carroll, Douglas and Haralson counties heard and felt a loud boom that rattled windows. Police officers and firefighters were dispatched to the Mirror Lake neighborhood in Villa Rica but found no evidence of an explosion.

Officials later guessed that they'd heard a sonic boom. But the Federal Aviation Administration said only a military aircraft could cause a sonic boom and there was no record of military flights in the area.

A major source of sonic booms in Georgia is Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins. Pilots there routinely fly F-15 fighter jets over the speed of sound as part of maintenance testing. The flight path is across middle Georgia though -- too far south to be heard in Villa Rica, and none of the F-15s were being tested that day, said Chrissy Miner, a base spokeswoman.

"While I cannot speak for the entire military, I can verify that Robins Air Force Base did not have any flights occurring that day," Miner said Tuesday. She added that test flights only occur during daylight hours.

Several readers speculated that the Villa Rica explosion was somehow linked to an experimental military spacecraft, the X-37B, that reportedly landed in California Friday.

Miner knew nothing about the secretive space plane project, but an Atlanta aerospace expert said the timing, and the trajectory, of an alleged recent flight rule it out as a cause of disruption over Georgia.

The space plane reportedly landed well after the Villa Rica explosion, said Ryan Russell, an assistant professor at the Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering at Georgia Tech. He said "the ground tracks of the 40 degree orbit require that most of the entry occurs over the Pacific" Ocean. He concluded that the noise was probably caused by the meteor that several people reportedly saw on Nov. 26.

Russell said the bright thing in Raymond's video didn't appear to him to be a contrail, which is a streak of condensed water vapor created in the air by aircraft at high altitude.

But a meteorologist with the National Weather Service said there is an optical illusion, known as a "sundog," that could have made a jet's contrail look like the thing in Raymond's video.

A contrail comprises ice crystals that can reflect and refract the sun's light. At the right angle, said Barry Gooden, a National Weather Service meterologist, the ice can look like a plume of fire.

"The light has to hit it just so," said Gooden. "The contrail has to be in the right place at the right time." He said Raymond's position relative to the object and the sun -- the object was southwest of Raymond, between him and the setting sun -- would have been ideal to produce an optical illusion.

Just in case he's wrong though, you might want to stock up on extra presents for the kids this Christmas -- in case Santa's sleigh is in the shop.