UPDATE on the big UK fireball

Contributed by
Sep 26, 2012
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There's been a bit more news on that amazingly bright and weird fireball seen moving across the skies of northern UK last week.

Marco Langbroek is a paleolithic archaeologist in Amsterdam, and also an amateur satellite tracker - though with modern tech, the term "amateur" is arguable. Anyway, he's been looking at the track and velocity of the meteor using eyewitness accounts (and the video taken), and thinks he can rule out the cause being the re-entry of human-made debris from a spacecraft. In fact, he thinks the meteoroid (the term for the actual object responsible for the light show) was an Aten asteroid: part of a class of rocks that orbit the Sun on paths that tend to keep them inside Earth's orbit*.

The key issues here are the slow speed it moved across the sky, and the fact it moved east-to-west. That last part is really important: very few satellites orbit retrograde, or in that direction. Most orbit either prograde - west-to-east, the same direction the Earth spins and also the same direction it orbits the Sun - or in polar orbits (north/south). So right away that makes it unlikely the meteor was from a spacecraft.

However, what has me scratching my head is the slow speed of the meteor. A rock orbiting the Sun retrograde means its velocity will add to the Earth's, making it move faster as it burns up, not slower. It's like two cars in a head-on collision; if each is moving 100 km/hr then the resulting collision speed is 200 km/hr relative to either car. You get slower relative collisions if they're moving in the same direction; they'll merely bump at low speed relative to one another.

We see this with meteors; the Leonid meteor shower, for example, is made up of tiny particles that move almost in the opposite direction of the Earth, and when they burn up in our atmosphere they move extremely rapidly across the sky. The collision speeds can be 70 kilometers per second!

So why was this meteor over the UK moving so slowly if it were an Aten? Marco thinks he has the answer to that. If the asteroid happened to be at aphelion - the top of its orbit, when it's farthest from the Sun, also when moving most slowly and in a direction nearly parallel with that of the Earth - it would all add up. The backwards direction and the slow motion would be a natural consequence of this. [UPDATE: I made an error here: the asteroid can orbit the Sun prograde! When it's at the top of its orbit, it can be moving slower than Earth does around the Sun, so when we look at it it appears to move east-to-west. It's like passing a slower car in a faster one; to the driver of the passing car, the slower one appears to be moving backwards when in reality they are both moving in the same direction. I hope that clears up any misunderstanding!]

I'll note that as far as I have thought about this, I agree with Marco. It's not conclusive yet, though, but it's compelling.

Meteors like this are rare. One that gets this bright, is seen by so many people, and drops bits of itself as it burns up are rare enough (the Peekskill meteor in 1992 is the best example of this), but one moving retrograde is even weirder. If Marco is right then I hope even more people submit their observations, pictures, and videos to the International Meteor Organization website. Those observations can help scientists determine the orbit of the object more accurately, and help pin down exactly what the heck this crazy object was.

Image credit: Craig Anderson

* Technically, an Aten asteroid has a semi-major axis less than one Astronomical Unit. Orbits are elliptical, and the semi-major axis is the half-diameter of the orbit along the long axis. Despite this, an Aten can cross the Earth's orbit if its orbit is elongated (eccentric) enough.

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