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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Did a Skydiver Almost Get Hit by a Meteorite? (Video.)

By Phil Plait

A couple of days ago, a video taken by a skydiver hit the ‘Net like an asteroid impact. That’s because that’s exactly what the claim was: footage of a meteoroid zipping past the falling diver, a rock from space clearly caught on camera.

I was on travel (sigh; that seems inevitable when stuff like this happens) so I couldn’t get a good look at it, but now that I’ve had some time to peruse it I have to admit the video does look legit. My default response is of course extreme skepticism; video hoaxes seem to outnumber real ones 10 to one.

But my conclusion here is that unless this was faked outright—and there may simply be no way to ever know that—then this does show what appears to be a rock falling, and that means it may be a meteorite. It certainly looks that way!

First things first. Here’s the video:

The whole thing is worth watching, but the best shot of the rock flying by comes at about the 1:50 mark.

Given that I’m leaning toward it being real, let me cover how it might have been faked first.

Meteor Might

If this footage is faked, then the rock was either a real object dropped on purpose, or it was digitally added to the video (or something real mistaken for a meteoroid; I’ll get to that presently). I am not an expert in video manipulation—though I suppose I could be considered one in simple digital imagery, given my experience working on astronomical images—but it doesn’t look faked to me. The image isn’t overly crisp like so many are, and it doesn’t look pixelated or cut-and-pasted. I don’t have the original footage, and I have not heard anything from video experts, so I suspect we’ll have to leave that question unanswered.

So let’s look at it being done practically, using a real rock. Many people have suggested it was dropped from the plane, but that’s very unlikely; Anders Helstrup, the skydiver who took the video, had been falling for some time before deploying his parachute, and it would’ve been incredibly difficult to get the aim just right. Even if the plane were just off frame, the aim would’ve had to been extraordinary. Even if they tried multiple times to get it right, this appears to have been far too lucky a shot.

Others have suggested it came from his parachute (see comments at that link); we see it zip by right after the chute is deployed. But note how fast the rock is dropping. If it started from his parachute, it would’ve been falling far slower relative to him. So I don’t think that’s the case either. Note too that some people think it might have been a rock caught in his parachute (probably when it was packed), but something that size and weight probably would have been noticed. And either way, the relative speed makes this explanation unlikely.

So if I were to fake something like this, the easiest way would be to have a third skydiver along to do it. They would jump after Helstrup and his companion, or just stay above them. The third diver could move into position (easy enough since they used flight suits, which are highly maneuverable) and drop the rock from some height above.

Again, though, the speed of the rock belies this. It was moving pretty rapidly, so I doubt anyone would aim it that well. If they made an error, they could seriously hurt Helstrup.

And I also have another serious problem with this: Any way of making this footage involving dropping a real rock would’ve had to have been tried many times to get it right. That means they dropped an actual rock from thousands of meters up over inhabited land many times, an incredibly stupid and dangerous thing to do. Hoaxing something is one thing; purposely endangering people is another, and I have a very hard time making the assumption they’d do that.

Meteor Right

OK then, let’s assume it’s real. How can that be?

A lot of people think meteoroids (the actual rock) fall to the ground at high speed, but in fact smaller ones move much more slowly. When it starts out, the object in space is moving dozens of kilometers per second, but it slows down extremely rapidly in our air when it’s still 80-100 kilometers above the ground. As it gets lower it can break up, and those pieces decelerate savagely as well. By the time it’s 20 or so kilometers up, it’s essentially free falling to the ground. It hits terminal velocity of a few hundred kilometers per hour, and then falls at a constant speed after that. So if this rock was from a meteor, it wouldn’t be moving hypersonically when it passed Helstrup. It would move just like we see in the video.

I’ll note that Steinar Midtskogen at the Norwegian Meteor Network did a great analysis of the video (here’s an English translation) and shows the rock to be about 8–20 cm across, depending on how far it was (2.5–6.5 meters away), which he calculates based on an assumed rate of speed.* That also gives it a mass of just under a kilo (2 pounds) to about 20 kilos (45 pounds).

Looking at the video, the rock does have the appearance of a meteoroid (note: it’s not technically a meteorite until it hits the ground). If the main mass that fell into our atmosphere broke apart, you’d get smaller pieces where one side could be dark from the heat of passage (called the fusion crust) while another side would look brighter, since it’s “fresh” rock, shattered from the original. Even the color looks about right.

That doesn’t mean it is a space rock, though. It could be some sort of other debris, though what I don’t know. It doesn’t look like something from an airplane, and at that height it’s unlikely to be a grinder tip from an industrial belt (a relatively common object mistaken for a meteorite).

One last note: A rock that big implies an even bigger starting mass, which means the actual meteor event would’ve produced a very bright bolide/fireball a few minutes before the footage we see. I can’t say how bright it would’ve been, and given it was broad daylight, and somewhat cloudy skies, it’s entirely possible something like that could’ve been missed.


So what do we make of all this? I don’t have solid evidence either way. Proof could come in the form of the actual meteorite, but despite two years of searching, no meteorite has ever been found—which isn’t surprising, given how much area we’re talking about here. It could’ve fallen into a creek, or forest, or some other difficult-to-search place. Not finding the rock doesn’t prove anything either way.

I’ll note that Helstrup had at least one expert looking at the video (Hans Erik Foss Amundsen, a geophysicist), who concluded it was real. Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today also got confirmation of its reality from a Norwegian astrophysicist. That does sway me.

Could this video have been faked? Well, sure, anything can be these days. But it seems unlikely. And it does hold together consistently. After watching it a number of times and thinking it over, my conclusion is that it is much more likely to be real than not.

That being the case, if someone does find the meteorite in question, it could be incredibly valuable. Meteorites from known falls are worth more than random ones, and this one would be even more special: It’s the first time anyone has gotten footage of the so-called dark flight part of a meteorite’s fall. (There is footage of the Russian Chelyabinslk meteorite impacting a frozen lake, but the rock itself isn’t seen, just the plume from the snow and ice blown up by the force of impact)

Also, I wonder: If this is a smaller piece of a larger fall, then there should be more rocks to find as well. The strewn field, as the fall area is called, could be quite large, with very few pieces in it. But that does increase the chance of finding smaller pieces “upstream” of the fall.

I certainly hope the pieces (or piece) are found. How interesting and exciting it would be to actually have the first physical specimen from a known, photographed, dark flight!

*Correction, April 7, 2014: This post originally misspelled the first name of Steinar Midtskogen of the Norwegian Meteor Network.

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