About me

For my professional website, with information about my research, publications and teaching, see www.sites.google.com/site/rmlevans.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Fireball

I was out in town on Friday night, having a drink or two with friends. This, in itself, is worthy of note, as my party-animal days are long gone, and my evenings are usually spent reading bed-time stories (no, not to myself), putting the rubbish out, and generally up to my elbows in domestic bliss.

But I’m not writing to inform you of my newly rediscovered social life, but of an even more fortuitous turn of events. Having drunk ourselves close to penury (have you seen the prices recently?), my companions and I were meandering homeward and, coming to the parting of our ways, we paused to put the world to rights and bid each other a hearty farewell.

As we stood face to face, my attention was caught by movement at the upper edge of my vision. In the heat of the moment, I failed to suppress an involuntary Anglo-Saxon word escaping my lips as I glanced skyward and beheld a spectacle for which I was utterly unprepared.

Above the high-rise rooftops of central Leeds, a dazzling fireball was racing across the sky. It was obviously not a firework, because the scale was all wrong, and it was clearly traveling extremely fast on a nearly straight trajectory, heading very slightly downward of horizontal.

My first thought was that it was a stricken aircraft - an international airliner judging by its height and speed. My second thought was that it could just possibly be a meteor - a rock from outer space burning up due to friction with the atmosphere. But I’ve seen a lot of meteors, and it wasn’t the first thing that came to mind, because meteors don’t normally look like that.

It’s a by-product of being an amateur astronomer - spending hours outside in the dark, trying to align a telescope with some almost-invisible marvel of deep space - that I often happen to be looking the right way when a meteor, an extraterrestrial sand-grain, hits the atmosphere and burns up. It typically happens once or twice during each observing session, and it’s a nice experience to witness the brief flashes corriscating across the heavens. They are colloquially known as shooting stars because, like the stars, they appear as points; zero-size dots (although that’s all they have in common, since the true stars are each really millions of times the volume of the whole world, while a typical meteor is a trillion trillion trillion times smaller). And, as the name suggests, it shoots across the field of view so rapidly that you don’t get a chance to point it out to a friend.

The most spectacular meteor I had previously seen had broken into several widely-spread fragments, so that their dimly glowing uneven rank stalked silently across the sky like the broad wings of some spectral vulture.
The startling phenomenon at 10.55pm on Friday was quite different.

For one thing, it moved more slowly. It was faster, I soon realized, than most commercial aeroplanes, but didn't streak across the sky like a normal meteor. And it was no dim little dot. This was a blazing white ball shooting out sparks just like a super-sized sparkler on Guy Fawkes Night. It was accompanied by host of smaller fragments, and trailed a glowing orange tail. A short distance behind followed some smaller shining orange pieces, but also much bigger than a normal shooting star.

I was relieved to notice that none of the pieces was the shape of a wing or fuselage or jet engine. So the biggest, most spectacular meteor I had ever seen seemed to be the most likely explanation.

On arriving home, I tweeted my strange experience, and soon saw others’ tweets and news stories about the fireball, from right across the north of Britain. A few people even had their cameras handy at just the right moment:

UK meteor
Photo: Ian Bolton. Click on image to follow link to original.

Photo: Adam Badrick. Click on image to follow link to original.
Early the next morning, after the hubbub of questions, misconceptions and emergency calls had finished flying about the ether, Jodrell Bank posted a message on Twitter, saying, "No real consensus on whether last night's spectacular fireball was a space rock burning up or space junk (bit of spacecraft)".
I hadn’t thought of space junk up to that point, but it seemed to fit with what I saw. It would explain the relatively low speed of the mystery object, as material in terrestrial orbit is not quite as fast as rocks orbiting the sun. Also, something intangible about its shape and the way it tumbled suggested an artificial, un-rock-like object to me. If it was indeed space junk, it was the prettiest, most spectacular junk I’ve ever seen.

I have since heard various second-hand news reports of the event, some even seeming to imply that the whole sky was ablaze with shooting stars like a scene from Day of the Trifids. It wasn't, but the sight was nonetheless impressive, and one that I will remember for a long time. As one of the lucky few who witnessed it first-hand, I thought it would be worthwhile recording my account. And now that I've done so, I must return to the domestic bliss of putting out my incomparably less spectacular rubbish.

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