14 November 2011

November 2011

US: Did Meteor Fall from Sky in Pell City, Alabama?

Bill Watts is shown at a possible meteor impact site in his backyard.
Where are FBI special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully when you need them?

The two X-Files characters would come in handy helping a local man figure out what in the world, or maybe out of this world, caused a large, black hole to appear in his backyard, setting nearby woods on fire.

"I think it was a meteor," Bill Watts, 54, of Pell City said as he moved the wooden plywood board lying on the ground, revealing a dark, black crater at the edge of some woods on his property.

Watts admits he doesn't know exactly what made the large, round crater and caused a fire Friday at about 8 p.m.

"It had to be so hot and moving so fast to do that," he said. "This ground is pretty hard."

He gripped a post hole digger with both hands and drove it into the ground.

"See," he said.

The post hole digger barely made a mark on the hard ground.

The walls inside the crater are charred, obviously burned. A fine ash covers the bottom of the hole.

Watts took the post hole digger and carefully removed some of the burnt ashes from the bottom of the hole.

He piled the ashes next to the hole and knelt down, gently scooping up a handful.

"It's all burnt up," Watts said.

He said if a meteorite made the crater it is possible it is buried at the bottom of the hole.

Right now, Watts is careful not to disturb the site too much so an expert can take a look at it and explain to him exactly what it is and how it got there.

Henry Graves, Watts' brother-in-law who lives next door, may have witnessed the impact.

"All at once flames shot up 5 to 6 feet into the air," Graves said. "The flames went higher than the fence."

Watts' wooden fence is about 6 feet tall.

Graves was standing on the porch of his home, waiting for his daughter and grandchild to arrive for a visit, when he saw flames shooting up into the air.

He said the fire lit the entire back area behind the wooden partition.

"It was like daylight," Graves said. "It was like someone throwing gas on a brush pile. ... You wouldn't believe the light it put out."

Graves said he did not hear any type of explosion or see a shooting flame across the sky. He just saw the flames shooting up from the ground and into the sky.

He watched the fire for a few minutes and decided to call his neighbors.

"I said, 'What in the world are ya'll burning up there?'" Graves recalled.

His neighbors told him they weren't burning anything.

"We first thought our boats blew up. Then we thought someone built a big fire," Watts said. "All sorts of things go through your head."

He said they went out to the site "expecting to see someone fooling around."

There was nobody on the property, just a small fire that was burning fallen leaves and, of course, the charred crater.

Watts said they were able to stomp out the ground fire.

He said the fire appeared to have originated from the crater. A burned path led from the hole to the woods.

The crater is about 3 feet deep and measures 13-15 inches across. There are a couple of smaller, softball or football size holes next to the bigger hole, measuring 5-6 inches across.

Watts hopes a geologist or someone with expertise in meteorites will take a closer look at what he thinks is a meteor impact site, and dig up a meteor that is possibly buried beneath the crater.

But until then, the black hole on Watts' property remains a mystery.

Quarter-mile-wide asteroid coming close to Earth

An asteroid bigger than an aircraft carrier will dart between the Earth and moon on Tuesday - the closest encounter by such a huge rock in 35 years.

But scientists say not to worry. It won't hit.

"We're extremely confident, 100 percent confident, that this is not a threat," said the manager of NASA's Near Earth Object Program, Don Yeomans. "But it is an opportunity."

Huge Ateroid aproaching
© NASA/Cornell/Arecibo

This image made from radar data taken in April 2010 by the Arecibo Radar Telescope in Puerto Rico and provided by NASA/Cornell/Arecibo shows asteroid 2005 YU55.
The asteroid named 2005 YU55 is being watched by ground antennas as it approaches from the direction of the sun. The last time it came within so-called shouting distance was 200 years ago.

Closest approach will occur at 6:28 p.m. EST Tuesday when the asteroid passes within 202,000 miles of Earth. That's closer than the roughly 240,000 miles between the Earth and the moon.

The moon will be just under 150,000 miles from the asteroid at the time of closest approach.

Both the Earth and moon are safe - "this time," said Jay Melosh, professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Purdue University.

If 2005 YU55 were to plow into the home planet, it would blast out a crater four miles across and 1,700 feet deep, according to Melosh's calculations. Think a magnitude-7 earthquake and 70-foot-high tsunami waves.

Scientists have been tracking the slowly spinning, spherical, dark-colored object since its discovery in 2005, and are positive it won't do any damage.

"We know the orbit of this object very well," Yeomans said.

The asteroid stretches a quarter-mile across. Smaller objects come close all the time, Yeomans noted, but nothing this big will have ventured so close since 1976. And nothing this large will again until 2028.

Radar observations from California and Puerto Rico will help scientists ascertain whether the asteroid is pockmarked with craters and holds any water-bearing minerals or even frozen water.

Amateur astronomers would need a 6-inch-or-bigger telescope and know exactly where to look to spot it.

Astronomers consider 2005 YU55 a C-type asteroid - one containing carbon-based materials. "It's not just a whirling rock like most of them," Yeomans said.

Such objects are believed to have brought carbon-based materials and water to the early Earth, planting the seeds for life. The discovery of water-bearing minerals or ice would support that theory, Yeomans said.

This is the type of asteroid that NASA would want to aim for, with astronauts, Yeomans said, especially if frozen water is found. Such asteroids could serve as watering holes and fueling stations for future explorers, he said.

An asteroid is actually on NASA's short list for destinations.

President Barack Obama wants astronauts headed to an asteroid and then Mars in the coming decades. That's why the 30-year space shuttle program ceased this summer - so NASA could have enough money to get cracking on these new destinations.

As for an actual strike by an asteroid this size, that's estimated to occur once every 100,000 years or so.

An asteroid named Apophis - estimated to be 885 feet across - will venture extremely close on April 13, 2029 - but will not strike. It has a remote chance of hitting Earth when it comes around again on April 13, 2036.

Scientists said information gleaned from 2005 YU55, as well as other asteroids, will prove useful if and when it becomes necessary to deflect an incoming Armageddon-style rock.

Source: AP

Deflecting Killer Asteroids Away From Earth: How We Could Do It

© Emily Lakdawalla/Ted Stryk
Asteroids Visited by Spacecraft

A huge asteroid's close approach to Earth tomorrow (Nov. 8) reinforces that we live in a cosmic shooting gallery, and we can't just sit around waiting to get hit again, experts say.

Asteroid 2005 YU55, which is the size of an aircraft carrier, will zip within the moon's orbit tomorrow, but it poses no danger of hitting us for the foreseeable future. Eventually, however, one of its big space rock cousins will barrel straight toward Earth, as asteroids have done millions of times throughout our planet's history.

If we want to avoid going the way of the dinosaurs, which were wiped out by an asteroid strike 65 million years ago, we're going to have to deflect a killer space rock someday, researchers say. Fortunately, we know how to do it.

"We have the capability - physically, technically - to protect the Earth from asteroid impacts," said former astronaut Rusty Schweickart, chairman of the B612 Foundation, a group dedicated to predicting and preventing catastrophic asteroid strikes. "We are now able to very slightly and subtly reshape the solar system in order to enhance human survival."

In fact, we have several different techniques at our disposal to nudge killer asteroids away from Earth. Here's a brief rundown of the possible arrows in our planetary defense quiver.

The Gravity Tractor

If researchers detect a potentially dangerous space rock in plenty of time, the best option may be to send a robotic probe out to rendezvous and ride along with it.

The spacecraft's modest gravity would exert a tug on the asteroid as the two cruise through space together. Over months or years, this "gravity tractor" method would pull the asteroid into a different, more benign orbit.

"You can get a very precise change in the orbit for the final part of the deflection using a technology of this kind," Schweickart said in late September, during a presentation at Caltech in Pasadena, Calif., called "Moving an Asteroid."

Humanity has already demonstrated the know-how to pull off such a mission. Multiple probes have met up with faraway asteroids in deep space, including NASA's Dawn spacecraft, which is currently orbiting the huge space rock Vesta.

And in 2005, the Japanese Hayabusa probe even plucked some pieces off the asteroid Itokawa, sending them back to Earth for analysis.

Smash 'Em Up

We could also be more aggressive with our asteroid rendezvous craft, relying on brute force rather than a gentle gravitational tug. That is, we could simply slam a robotic probe into the threatening space rock to change its orbit.

We know how to do this, too. In 2005, for example, NASA sent an impactor barreling into the comet Tempel 1 to determine the icy object's composition.

The impactor approach would not be as precise as the gravity tractor technique, Schweickart said, but it could still do the job.

There's also the possibility of blowing the asteroid to smithereens with a nuclear weapon. The nuclear option could come into play if the dangerous space rock is too big to knock around with a kinetic impactor, but it would likely be a weapon of last resort.

For one thing, blasting an asteroid to bits might end up doing more harm than good, said fellow presentation panelist Bill Nye, executive director of the Planetary Society.

"Momentum is conserved," Nye said. "If you blow it up, then the whole giant spray of rocks is coming at the Earth instead of one."

The politics involved in mobilizing use of a nuke could also be a cause for concern, Schweickart said. It will likely be hard enough to convince the world to mount any sort of asteroid-deflection mission in time, and adding nuclear missiles to the equation would make things much stickier.

"The potential use of nuclear explosives for deflection cannot currently be ruled out," Schweickart said. "But it is an extremely low probability that they will be needed."

'Mirror Bees' and Foil Wrap

While we're pretty sure that gravity tractors and kinetic impactor probes would work, researchers are also looking into several other ideas.

There's the "mirror bee" concept, for example, which would launch a swarm of small, mirror-bearing spacecraft to a dangerous asteroid. These mini-probes would aim reflected sunlight at one spot on the space rock, heating it up so much that rock is vaporized, creating propulsive jets.

"The reaction of that gas or material being ejected from the asteroid would nudge it off-course," Nye said.

The Planetary Society is helping fund research into mirror bees, Nye said. And while he said the concept isn't yet ready for deployment or demonstration, he stressed that it's not too far off, either.

"Maybe five years," Nye told SPACE.com. "It's not 30 years."

Nye also floated another, more speculative idea. It might be possible to move an asteroid, he said, by wrapping it in reflective foil, like a giant baked potato. Photons from the sun might then nudge the space rock away from Earth, in much the same way they propel spacecraft equipped with solar sails.

"This might work, even if the thing is rotating," Nye said. "OK, make no promises. But it's something to invest in."

Passing the Intelligent Life Test

The biggest key to deflecting dangerous asteroids, researchers say, is detecting them with plenty of lead time to take appropriate action. We'd like to have a least a decade of notice, NASA scientists have said.

It'll take awhile, after all, to mobilize and launch a deflection mission, and for that mission to do its job, especially if we go the gravity tractor route.

We need to make sure we can rise to the challenge when a big, threatening asteroid shows up on our radar, Schweickart and Nye said. Civilization's very survival depends on it.

"If there is a community of intelligent life out in the universe ... those intelligent beings will have already conquered this challenge," Schweickart said. "Our entrance exam to that community of intelligent life is to pass this test."

Two fireballs seen over Poland on successive nights, including very bright one observed from Berlin to Czech Republic

© PKiM

On Sunday a record-breaking fireball appeared over Poland. Its visible trail was as long as 254 km, reports the Polish Fireball Network (PFN - PKiM in Polish).

This phenomenon took place on 6 November at 5:38:19 p.m. local time. The fireball flew nearly directly south from the region of Poznan toward the Czech Republic. It reached its maximum brightness over a village of Lukova in the Czech Republic. Average brightness was of -3 magnitude and in outbursts it reached up to -5.5. The meteor appeared at an altitude of 130 km and burnt up at 95 km. Its flight lasted almost 4 seconds.

It was a sporadic meteor of cometary origin and was travelling very fast. Its velocity was up to 65 km/sec.

The phenomenon was registered by the Polish Fireball Network in Chelm, Otwock, Twardogora, Urzedowo and Krakow.

© PKiM
Nov 6, 16:38:19 UT, first report came from Tomasz Krzyzanowski, observatory station Podgorzyn, PFN 38

A comment left on the PKiN website:

Confirmed in Berlin
Submitted by amoeller on wt., 2011-11-08 09:19.

Hi guys,

I can confirm a seeing this from Berlin (Germany).

My exact location was: Motorway A10 - East Berlin ring (direction south).

Excactly at 16:38 UT a fireball dived the earth from south to north. It passed the moon from the right site.

Greetings from Germany,

© PKiM
The following day, 7 November, saw another interesting phenomenon picked up by the Polish Fireball Network.

Due to its early timing, some cameras were not yet working, however three stations (PFN20, PFN24 and PFN37) registered the visitor. The fireball was not travelling very fast and had an initial velocity of 25.1 km/s, flying between Lodz and Warsaw. The length of the fireball track was 75 km, with the maximum brightness reached over Zyrardow.

The phenomenon was somewhat unusual. A number of flashes indicates its cometary nature, the orbit was clearly elliptical with aphelion between Jupiter and Saturn. On the other hand, its initial and final altitudes (87 km and 57 km) indicate a body of a slightly bigger density. It could have been a carbonaceous chondrite.

More pictures can be seen on the PKiM website:
Meteor of November 6
Meteor of November 7

Passing asteroid 2005 YU55 puts on a show

Astronomers watched the asteroid 2005 YU55 spin as it zoomed harmlessly past Earth, and everybody else was looking over their shoulders. You can expect to see a huge pile of pictures now that the coal-dark space rock has passed by.

Even before the closest pass, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory provided a six-frame "movie" based on radar data acquired by the Goldstone radio telescope on Monday. This sequence was captured from a distance of 860,000 miles (1.38 million kilometers).

The closest approach to Earth came at 6:28 p.m. ET Tuesday, when the quarter-mile-wide (400-meter-wide) asteroid slipped just barely within the orbit of the moon at a distance of 198,000 miles (319,000 kilometers). YU55 is due to come closest to the moon at 2:14 a.m. ET Wednesday, NASA said.

Neither the moon nor Earth was at risk during this flyby, but the information gathered this time around could help astronomers know what they're dealing with during potentially riskier encounters.

Here's a parting shot of YU55 from the 25-inch telescope at the Clay Center Observatory in Massachusetts, which tracked the asteroid as it swept past at 29,000 mph:

© Clay Center Observatory

The speck near the center of this image is 2005 YU55 at the time of closest approach. The bright streaks are background stars.
In a Twitter update, NASA said that YU55 will make its next Earth flyby in 2015, "but at a greater distance than today." Today's encounter wasn't close enough to perturb the near-Earth asteroid's orbit, but experts are wondering whether a close flyby of Venus in 2029 will change its orbital path slightly.

Even if that Venus encounter does cause a change, Earth is in no danger from this particular space rock, at least for the next 100 years or so. Which is a good thing. If an object the size of YU55 were to hit land, experts say it would blast a 4-mile-wide, 1,700-foot-deep crater and set off a 7.0 earthquake. If it hit at sea, it would create a catastrophic tsunami with 70-foot-high waves.

The last time an asteroid as big as YU55 came this close was in 1976, and the next time will be in 2028 - or could it be sooner? Scientists recently estimated that thousands of asteroids around the size of YU55 remain to be discovered, so learning about this rock's composition and motion could help us deal with many other rocks to come.

YU55 is particularly interesting because it has a high carbon content, which makes it coal-black. Such carbonaceous chondrites have been found to contain amino acids, and may have played a role in the origin of life on Earth. NASA's Osiris-Rex mission, due for launch in 2016, will target a carbonaceous asteroid called 1999 RQ36 and try to bring a sample back to Earth for study.

NASA's current space vision calls for sending astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid sometime in the mid-2020s, and the head of NASA's Near Earth Object Program, Don Yeomans, said that if he got the chance to decide the destination, he'd pick a carbon-bearing rock like YU55.

"This would be an ideal object," he told The Associated Press.

US: Dalton, Georgia Reacts to 2.7 'Tremor' - 'explosion, came from the air'

A 2.7 magnitude quake rocked the Dalton area just before noon Wednesday. While some people in Dalton were pretty sure the rumble was an earthquake, others were convinced it was something else.

"Chances are it might have been an earthquake, but maybe it was some big monster outside that's coming to get us all," Jonathan Marks jokes about the magnitude 2.7 quake, but he wasn't the only one who was curious about what caused the ground to shake beneath his feet. The US Geological Survey didn't officially deem the shake, a quake until 2 hours after people say they felt the ground rattle and heard a loud boom in the air.

"I thought it was kind of like a huge explosion or a sonic boom because there was a little noise at first and then a loud explosion and I felt it right between my shoulders it was like it came from the air," said Mary Ellen Gurley, an employee at Dalton State College.

The USGS says Northwest Georgia is not an area prone to quakes. The largest earthquake in our seismic zone was on April 29th, 2003. It was a 4.6 magnitude near Fort Payne, Alabama. So if you had never felt one until Wednesday, you probably wouldn't have known what it was.

"I lived in North Carolina several years ago and felt one there. I guess it's not that different from a sonic boom or an explosion or something but to me, I thought this one was an earthquake, I guess having felt it before," said Mike Brown from Dalton.

Though the Dalton Police Department was flooded with calls, luckily no one was injured in the quake.

According to the USGS, the closest, most recent earthquake besides this one, happened Tuesday. A 2.0 magnitude earthquake hit Maryville, Tennessee around 8:30 p.m.

Listen to 911 calls placed immediately following the quake:

Comment: Sounds more like another meteorite exploding in the atmosphere overhead.

US: Another mystery rumble felt in Hampton Roads, Virginia

Virginia Beach map
Boom, it happened again.

Residents at the Oceanfront reported hearing a strange explosion around 9 p.m. Wednesday that rattled windows, shook foundations and startled babies out of their sleep.

It was the second time this year coastal residents have flooded emergency lines and online social networking sites after hearing and feeling ... well, something.

As with a previous mystery disturbance in May, nobody seems to know what happened, yet theories abound.

It wasn't another earthquake like the one that shook the East Coast in August, according to geologists. A NASA scientist said it could have been caused by a meteor crashing through the atmosphere, but there's no way of knowing without photographic proof. And military officials said don't blame them.

Oceana Naval Air Station spokeswoman Kelly Sterling felt and heard the boom at her home in Virginia Beach but said in an email it had nothing to do with jet noise or off-shore military exercises.

Beach middle school students made headlines last spring when they theorized the boom felt in May was a curious and little-understood phenomenon known as Seneca Guns. But the term was invented centuries ago to describe mysterious coastal sounds and offers no actual explanation.

On Facebook, several Beach residents wondered if the disturbance had anything to do with alien invaders. Others blamed Congress or chalked it up to a top-secret government operation.

"There's no easy way of knowing," said NASA scientist Joe Zawodny, who heard the boom at his home in Poquoson. "There are a million things you could blame this on."

Comment: Sounds like yet another meteor exploding overhead.

Scientists spot strange structures surface of asteroid as it passes by

An asteroid that is 400m (1,300ft) wide has passed by Earth, much to the delight of astronomers.

Although invisible to the naked eye, scientists said they spotted strange structures on its surface as it spun past at 30,000mph (48 280.32 km/h).

Asteroid 2005 YU55's was the closest an asteroid has been to Earth in 200 years, according to Nasa.

It is also the largest space rock fly-by Earth has seen since 1976; the next visit by a large asteroid will be 2028.

The aircraft-carrier-sized asteroid was darkly coloured in visible wavelengths and nearly spherical, lazily spinning about once every 20 hours as it raced through our neighbourhood of the Solar System.

Ron Dantowitz, the director of the Clay Centre Observatory in Massachusetts, followed the asteroid through a telescope.

"We're tracking the asteroid itself, so the stars are moving by in the background and the asteroid is actually streaking by at about 30,000mph," he said.

"As we track it, it looks like the stars are moving in the background and the asteroid is locked on in the centre view.

"It's not so much that we can see it tumbling like a rock in space, we're examining it for the brightness and colour."

'Closest approach'

Nasa said it had been no closer than 201,700 miles (324,600km), as measured from the centre of the Earth. The rock reached its closest point to Earth at 23:28 GMT on Tuesday.

It will now trace a path across the whole sky through to Thursday.

The asteroid often travels in the vicinity of Earth, Mars and Venus, but Nasa said this fly-by had been the closest the asteroid had come to Earth in at least 200 years.

"This is the closest approach by an asteroid that large that we've ever known about in advance," said Lance Benner of Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

But he stressed that there had been no chance that the pass would be anything other than a close encounter.

"2005 YU55 cannot hit Earth, at least over the interval that we can compute the motion reliably - which extends for several hundred years," he said.

Instead, the pass gave astronomers a rare opportunity to study the asteroid in detail.

In particular, two radio telescopes - the Goldstone Observatory in California, US and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, US - tracked radio echoes off it in a bid to understand better what it is made of and how it is shaped.

The precise details of the asteroid's path will also help scientists to predict where it will go much further into the future.

Earth has several regular visitors like 2005 YU55 - most famously the Apophis asteroid. Apophis has in the past been claimed as a possible future impactor when it returns to our neighbourhood in 2029 and again in 2036.

There is, according to the latest calculations, no danger from Apophis either. However, it will pass much closer to Earth on 13 April 2029 - at a distance of 18,300 miles (29,500km).

Comment: The above video is not the BBC's of course, it's taken from this YouTube channel.

We think that image is far too grainy to tell if we're looking at 'a structure' (in the sense that it's 'unnatural').

The narrator does make a good point however about the poor quality images they made available to the public. They can take fabulous photographs of other galaxies, but can't do better than this for "the closest asteroid fly-by in 200 years"?

It could be that by "strange structures", they meant naturally occurring structures they weren't expecting to see, such as the clear signs of electrical arc discharges on comets Wild 2 and Tempel 1 (which completely discounted the 'dirty snowball' theory of comets, by the way).

Then there's this:

Asteroid Vesta Has Mountain Three Times as Tall as Everest

And then, if we put our conspiracy-minded hats on for a minute, it could be that they're deliberately feeding the 'comets and space rocks as UFOs and motherships' disinformation.

Asteroid Lutetia... A Piece Of Earth?

This image of the unusual asteroid Lutetia was taken by ESA’s Rosetta probe during its closest approach in July 2010. Lutetia, which is about 100 kilometres across, seems to be a leftover fragment of the same original material that formed the Earth, Venus and Mercury. It is now part of the main asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, but its composition suggests that it was originally much closer to the Sun. Credit:
According to data received from ESA's Rosetta spacecraft, ESO's New Technology Telescope, and NASA telescopes, strange asteroid Lutetia could be a real piece of the rock... the original material that formed the Earth, Venus and Mercury! By examining precious meteors which may have formed at the time of the inner Solar System, scientists have found matching properties which indicate a relationship. Independent Lutetia must have just moved its way out to join in the main asteroid belt...

A team of astronomers from French and North American universities have been hard at work studying asteroid Lutetia spectroscopically. Data sets from the OSIRIS camera on ESA's Rosetta spacecraft, ESO's New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, and NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii and Spitzer Space Telescope have been combined to give us a multi-wavelength look at this very different space rock. What they found was a very specific type of meteorite called an enstatite chondrite displayed similar content which matched Lutetia... and what is theorized as the material which dates back to the early Solar System. Chances are very good that enstatite chondrites are the same "stuff" which formed the rocky planets - Earth, Mars and Venus.

"But how did Lutetia escape from the inner Solar System and reach the main asteroid belt?" asks Pierre Vernazza (ESO), the lead author of the paper.

It's a very good question considering that an estimated less than 2% of the material which formed in the same region of Earth migrated to the main asteroid belt. Within a few million years of formation, this type of "debris" had either been incorporated into the gelling planets or else larger pieces had escaped to a safer, more distant orbit from the Sun. At about 100 kilometers across, Lutetia may have been gravitationally influenced by a close pass to the rocky planets and then further affected by a young Jupiter.

"We think that such an ejection must have happened to Lutetia. It ended up as an interloper in the main asteroid belt and it has been preserved there for four billion years," continues Pierre Vernazza.

Asteroid Lutetia is a "real looker" and has long been a source of speculation due to its unusual color and surface properties. Only 1% of the asteroids located in the main belt share its rare characteristics.

"Lutetia seems to be the largest, and one of the very few, remnants of such material in the main asteroid belt. For this reason, asteroids like Lutetia represent ideal targets for future sample return missions. We could then study in detail the origin of the rocky planets, including our Earth," concludes Pierre Vernazza.

How I Missed the Great Leonid Meteor Shower of 1966

Clouds ruined the party for this young boy, but for some the show was utterly spectacular.

© Koen Miskotte
This image is a composition of 33 Leonids captured overnight from Nov. 18 to 19, 2001.

The annual Leonid meteor shower will peak this week, and every year, skywatchers hope to catch stunning displays of ultrafast meteors streak across the sky. This year is no different, but it comes on a special anniversary - the 45th anniversary of the Great Leonid Meteor Storm of 1966.

Forty-five years have come and gone and it still hurts.

In 1966, one of the most stupendous Leonid meteor displays ever witnessed took place over central and western North America. The Leonids occur every year on or around Nov. 18, when Earth glides through a diaphanous trail of dust left behind by the comet Tempel-Tuttle. Each year, stargazers are tempted with a drizzle of maybe a dozen ultrafast meteors streaking across the sky every hour.

But, every 33 years or so, a rare and dazzling Leonid storm can occur after the comet swoops near the sun, closely followed by thicker concentrations of dusty, icy particles no larger than the size of Rice Krispies. Earth then plows straight through the comet's refreshed wake, producing a stupendous meteor display.

1966 was one of those special years. And I missed it!

There I was forty-five Novembers ago, standing in my backyard late on a Wednesday night in the Throggs Neck section of The Bronx, cursing the heavens. My grandfather stood at my side, just shaking his head and murmuring two words over and over: "Too bad."

Clouds covered the midnight sky like a fresh coat of plaster, smearing my view of the Leonids. My mom, sister and grandmother, as well as my neighbors had long since trudged to bed, leaving only Grandpa and I to gaze at a charcoal gray sky totally devoid of stars.

Excitement turns to crushing disappointment

The previous weekend, we had visited the Hayden Planetarium in New York where Dr. Fred C. Hess, an astronomer, who was also a powerful orator, urged us to be sure to look skyward after midnight on Wednesday for - potentially - a spectacular display of "shooting stars."

In the "pretend universe" of the planetarium's domed sky theater, we were told that given reasonably clear skies, we might see hundreds, or maybe even thousands, of meteors per hour. We then were treated, using Hayden's famous Zeiss star projector, to a re-enactment of the stupendous 1833 Leonid storm, where in the span of a single night over North America, an estimated 250,000 meteors rained down from the sky.

Needless to say, I couldn't wait for Wednesday to come; I was "wired" for the Leonids.

So, after coming home from school that afternoon, I did all of my homework, had an early dinner and then, before getting a few hours of sleep, watched the local TV weather reports, which were all promising no worse than "partly cloudy" weather for prospective skywatchers.

When my alarm clock rang at the stroke of midnight, I bundled up and, with my grandfather in tow, anxiously ran outside to watch the promised celestial pyrotechnics display. But, I was met instead with cloud-filled skies and not a star to be seen. After a few minutes, I sobbed to my grandfather, "But they promised it was only going to be partly cloudy tonight." To which he sadly replied, "I guess the party is over."

That night at Central Park, at a midnight meteor watch, an estimated 10,000 people were looking at the same cloud cover.

False alarm?

Grandpa and I trudged back inside. He went to straight to bed, but I stayed up for the rest of the night, hoping for a break in the clouds that never came. I was 10 years old and it was the first time I had ever pulled an all-nighter.

I went back to my room and tuned in WNBC radio, where an all-night talk show, hosted by a chap named Long John Nebel, was in progress. Nebel was immensely popular, with millions of regular listeners and a fanatically loyal following to his nightly program, which dealt mainly with anomalous phenomena, UFOs and other offbeat topics.

It was announced in the newspapers that on the night of the Leonid shower, Nebel would be talking to the chief astronomer at New York's Hayden Planetarium, Dr. Kenneth Franklin, who had the foresight to be above the clouds in an aircraft. Franklin planned to report on the Leonids to a New York radio audience. But, as the hours passed, it appeared that even from the plane, the Leonids were not very active.

Finally, around 4 a.m., Dr. Franklin announced that his plane was returning to La Guardia Airport and that he was calling it a night. And so did I.

Ironically, right after that, the fireworks began! Eyewitness accounts can be found here.

Dozens, then hundreds, then thousands

Beginning at around 5 a.m. Eastern Time, Leonid activity suddenly began to ramp up. Along the Eastern Seaboard, the dawn sky was brightening, and where clear skies prevailed, viewers were able to see Leonids falling at rates of up to six per minute before it finally became too bright to see the stars.

Farther west, where it still dark, Leonids were falling at a rate described by many as "too numerous to count." One observer stationed north of Mission, Texas, said that meteors falling in all directions gave the impression of a "gigantic umbrella," appearing to "waterfall" out of the head of Leo.

Perhaps the best views were from California and Arizona. At the Table Mountain Observatory, near Wrightwood, California, one resident astronomer commented that he and a colleague, "... watched a rain of meteors turn into a hail of meteors and finally a storm of meteors, too numerous to count by 3:50 a.m. Pacific Time. Instinctively, we sought to shield our upturned faces from imagined celestial debris."

From 6,850-foot Kitt Peak in southern Arizona, 13 amateur astronomers were trying to guess how many could be seen by a sweep of their heads in one second. The consensus of the group was that the peak occurred at 4:54 a.m. Mountain Time, when the staggering rate of 40 per second (144,000 per hour) was reached!

What happened?

Today, we know that a dusty trail of debris shed by comet Tempel-Tuttle back in 1899 was what caused the Great 1966 Leonid Storm. The dusty material had made two revolutions around the sun before colliding head-on with the Earth on that memorable night 45 years ago.

Because such a trail of cosmic flotsam and jetsam is invisible until it enters our atmosphere, astronomers were, in essence, playing a game of blind man's bluff, not knowing exactly if or when we might encounter it.

Today, with computer technology, it's a much different situation: Now, astronomers can readily locate the position of Leonid dust trails from the distant past or far into the future. Indeed, the Leonids will periodically shower our planet in the years to come; in the year 2034, Earth is forecast to move through several clouds of dusty debris shed by comet Tempel-Tuttle from the years 1699, 1767, 1866 and 1932. If we're lucky, we might see Leonids fall at the rate of hundreds per hour, perhaps briefly reaching "storm" rates of 1,000 per hour, experts have estimated.

But sadly, in the year 2028, Jupiter is expected to throw comet Tempel-Tuttle off from its current path through space, making it all but impossible - at least through the beginning of the 22nd century - to see a repeat of the Great Leonid Storm of 1966.

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, N.Y.

Australia: Large Shooting Star Dazzles Southeast Queensland

© redOrbit
A blazing object blasted through the Earth's atmosphere over Queensland on Sunday night, leaving some witnesses startled by its size.

Reports of a slow-moving double-headed meteor with an orange tail have been reported from Redcliffe to the Gold Coast on an astronomy blog.

But others think it was more likely man-made space junk.

Donna O'Kearney had been driving north from Canungra on the Gold Coast when about 7:37pm she saw a huge flaming object soaring through the sky.

"I thought it was a plane coming down and I couldn't understand why there was no noise," she said, saying it looked as big as a 747.

"All I could see was a blinding white light at the front going back to orange.

"You just couldn't take your eyes off it, it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

She said it took as long as 10 seconds to make its way across the sky before burning out in the distance.

Meteors are not uncommon sights in Australia, with more than 500 being found on our soil in the past 40 years and even more passing overhead, but the massive size of last night's one was an unusual sight for many.

South East Queensland Astronomical Society vice-president Julie Straayer said her club had been observing the object from Bracken Ridge last night.

"It's more than likely a piece of space junk because of the colour, but it was a sizeable piece and it took a long time to move," she said.

"Most meteors that you see in the sky are only about the size of your fingernail.

"More than likely it would've burned up before it hit the ground, if it did land it would go in the ocean anyway."

She added that it was likely a single piece of junk that had fallen from the heavens, rather than two.

"Because it was low in the sky you get atmospheric effects with it, that's why it looked like it had two heads. If it were two paths it would've had two trains," she said.

"It's like how the moon looks bigger when it's rising, the atmosphere can do funny things like that."

Comet Garradd Still Going Strong

Comet Garradd on November 19
© Michael Jaeger
Comet Garradd on November 19 shows a classic dual tail. The longer, blue streak is the ion tail. The dust tail is shorter and glows pale yellow from reflected sunlight.

Remember Comet Elenin? Hopes were high it would become the best comet of 2011, but instead it dissolved into a cloud of dust. Amateur astronomers are still tracking its fading remnants as the comet passes the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus this week.

The brightest comet of the year never received the dire publicity that stuck with Elenin to the end. Comet Garradd was well-placed and easily visible in binoculars this summer as it crossed the Milky Way en route to its current residence in the sprawling constellation Hercules. Underdog Garradd remains a 7th magnitude fuzzball in binoculars this month. I looked it up recently on one of the few clear nights we've had in November and was thrilled to see two tails sticking out of the comet's bright, fuzzy head or coma. Both show wonderfully in Michael Jaeger's photo and were just as pretty in my 15-inch scope though much more subtle.

Comet Garradd is 195 million miles away or about twice our Earth's distance from the sun. That gap will close to 118 million miles by early next March, when the comet will brighten by a magnitude, placing it within naked-eye range from the countryside. Take a look now before it drops too low in the western sky and the moon returns. The best viewing time is right at the end of evening twilight as soon as the sky gets dark.

finder chart to track down Comet Garradd
© AstroBob/Created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software

Use this finder chart to track down Comet Garradd. It inches slowly northward only a few degrees in the coming month. The map shows Hercules at around 6 p.m. at the end of evening twilight in the western sky. M13 is a bright globular cluster and stars are shown to 7th magnitude.

Binoculars still show a soft, puffy glow and perhaps a hint of a tail. A modest-sized telescope will show the dust tail and maybe even a hint of the ion tail. Dust tails are formed of smoke-sized particles of dust embedded in cometary ice. Heat from the sun vaporizes the ice and releases the particles which fall behind the comet in the form of a tail measuring between 600,000 and 6 million miles long. Comet dust reflects light just like good old house dust or cigarette smoke. Ion tails fluoresce blue when ultraviolet light in sunlight breaks down carbon monoxide jetted by the comet and are often much longer - up to 100 million miles.

US: Baffling fireball reported overhead in Richland County, Ohio

[File image]

A bright fireball in the sky got Rick Beverly's attention at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.

"I was headed north on Graham Road and was right about in front of my house when it happened," said the 1431 Graham Road, Lexington, man. "I was looking toward the east and noticed a big ball of fire fall from the sky. It was cruising."

Beverly said a red glow lit up a large section of woods behind his home. He thinks the fireball may have landed there.

Lt. Michael Vinson, of the Mansfield post of the Ohio Highway Patrol, said several agencies, including the Lexington Police Department, Troy Township Fire Department, the Richland County Sheriff's Office and the Air National Guard, responded.

"We were told that it may have been a plane crash," Vinson said. "But there was no evidence of any plane. We checked with Cleveland and Columbus FAA, and there were no flights in the area at the time."

The highway patrol orchestrated a fly-over to doublecheck the area that afternoon. Again, nothing was found.

Vinson said authorities believe the fireball may have been a meteor.

"It burned for about 45 minutes to an hour," Beverly said. The woods are about a quarter of a mile behind his home.

Beverly's father, Don, said his son pointed the strange phenomenon out to him.

"You could see the woods all lit up," he said. "When that first deputy arrived, we could see still the red embers and he took off for it, but it was like it suddenly just disappeared. There was no tree damage, not even a burnt spot.

"I'm thankful it wasn't a plane. I can tell you our adrenaline was flowing."

Electric Universe: Where Do Asteroids Come From?

Artist's drawing of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.
© NASA/GSFC/The University of Arizona
Artist's drawing of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft.

Are carbonaceous asteroids the precursors of life or the wreckage of life?

NASA plans to launch the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer mission, also known as OSIRIS-REx, in 2016. The spacecraft will orbit the Near Earth Object (NEO) 1999RQ36. After a year in close orbit, the probe will gather a sample of material from the object's surface and bring the sample back to Earth.

1999RQ36 is over 500 meters in diameter, about a third of a mile. Its orbital period around the Sun is 1.2 years. Observations indicate that its surface contains quite a bit of carbon, so astronomers classify it as a carbonaceous asteroid. Its orbit crosses the Earth's orbit, and it will come close to the Earth - a few times the Moon's distance - several times during the rest of this century. Mission scientists are hoping to gain some insight into how to deflect it if it should threaten to collide with the Earth.

The primary goal of the mission is to get a sample of "asteroid dust" and to examine it in a lab. According to presently accepted theory, asteroids were the leftovers when planets condensed out of the solar accretion disk that formed the Solar System a few billions of years ago. Astronomers expect to find "pristine organic material that ... might have seeded the sterile early Earth with the building blocks that led to life."

Judging from previous missions, what the astronomers find will "surprise" them and send them "back to the drawing board." They will not have collected a sample of "pristine material" but a sample of unquestioned presumptions from an obsolete theory. The nebular theory of planet formation never worked; astronomers abandoned it at one time; but they resurrected it because they could think of nothing better.

So they ignore the contradictions and spend their time - and taxpayers' money - following their faith in their textbooks, much as the Medieval priest-scholars did, albeit with a different textbook. Their work at the drawing board will be an ad hoc addition to the unwieldy contraption that is presently accepted theory. It will enable them to interpret the surprising new data in an acceptable way, or at least in a way that will excuse attention to unorthodox ideas.

If they had more confidence in the scientific method than they do in textbooks and peer pressure, they would consider the evidence left by ancient astronomers. People around the world at the dawn of history were obsessed with observing and recording the movements of bodies in the sky. Modern astronomers accept the ancient astronomers' identifications of those bodies as planets when remarking on their observational skills. When the content of the observations reveals a sky and movements that contradict the textbooks, the ancient evidence is dismissed out of hand as fantasies about gods.

If astronomers treated historical data with the same rigor and attention to detail with which they treat present data, they would consider that that evidence indicates the occurrence of events only a few thousands of years ago that reorganized the Solar System and resurfaced the Earth. Instead of taking for granted their speculation that 1999RQ36 is a pristine sample of billion-year-old proto-life, they would consider that it might be a space-fried fragment of life recently blasted from the ruins of the Earth.

US: A Thanksgiving predawn meteor over North Carolina?

At least one person was watching the sky before dawn on Thanksgiving morning. And..he had a view to be thankful for.

Around 4:30 AM today Ty in Grimesland, NC between Greenville and Washington saw a bright meteor low in the sky...heading south to north.

He writes, "It appeared to be really low, bright and with a long tail lasted for about 3 sec".

Did anyone else catch this bright but brief visitor?

Incoming! Shower of micro-meteorites sets fire to household items in India

New Delhi - Experts are yet to ascertain the composition of the mysterious "celestial" objects that fell on Chand Mohalla colony in Gandhi Nagar in east Delhi. Police sources said the material resembled a meteorite even as they were not ruling out the possibility of a prank. The incident took place on Sunday evening.

Police sources said incidents of meteorites falling on earth are rare. "It is too soon to arrive at a conclusion. The objects have been sent to FSL for examination and we will have to wait for the expert's take on the incident," said a police source. The incident, however, has had an impact on those who witnessed it.

"A strange black fireball first hit a cricket bat and then a towel. Both caught fire. Even the bike caught fire because of the fireball,'' said Indrapal Singh, whose household items were set on fire by the "celestial" objects.

Indrapal was watching television with his family when they heard a sound and rushed out. Moments later, several items - including a cricket bat and a towel - were on fire. "We brought out buckets and tried to douse the fire with water. However, it took us a while to bring it under control," he said. Police sources said they have collected the material from the site.

A meteorite is a natural object originating in outer space that survives impact with the earth's surface. Most meteorites, whether big or small, are derived from meteoroids, but they are also sometimes produced by the impact of asteroids. When a meteoroid enters the atmosphere, pressure causes the body to heat up and emit light, thus forming a fireball, also known as a meteor or shooting star. The term bolide refers to either an extraterrestrial body that collides with the earth, or to an exceptionally bright, fireball-like meteor regardless of whether it ultimately impacts the surface.

A meteorite on the surface of any celestial body is a natural object that has come from elsewhere in space.

Meteorites have been found on the moon and the Mars. Meteorites that are recovered after being observed as they travelled through the atmosphere or fell on earth are called falls. All other meteorites are known as finds. As of February 2010, there has been approximately 1,086 incidents of falls. In contrast, there have been over 38,660 well-documented meteorite finds.

Mahad, Maharashtra, India Meteor - Nov.25, 2011

Nearly at 22:50 there was a flash light falling all over illuminating the dark sky. I don't know what it was but it was extremely bright, leaving a shiny trail behind it which lasted for few seconds. I am in Mahad, Maharashtra, India.-feelipkd Thank you!

Science Debunked Meteorites

© unknown
A Rock from the sky...
"The Lord cast down great stones from heaven upon them"
Joshua 10:11
Rocks that fell from the sky were often venerated in ancient times and even became objects of worship. Visitors to the temple of Apollo at Delphi, for example, reported that a stone, reputed to have fallen from the sky, was on display there and each day was anointed by the resident priests.

So the ancient Greeks knew that stones could, and did, fall from the sky. They used observation, common sense and the genuine power of reason to establish this. Rocks and stones that fell to the ground were not really falling stars they reasoned, because the celestial population of stars remained the same.

Aristotle, however, the great Greek philosopher, was one who at first wholeheartedly debunked this concept. He thought that rocks could not fall from the sky because the heavens were perfect and could not possibly have loose pieces floating around to fall to Earth. Aristotle was forced to change his position somewhat after a meteorite fell at Thrace near Aegospotami. He reasoned that strong winds had lifted an earth rock into the sky, then dropped it. Other learned men of the time favoured an alternate theory. They held that meteorites somehow formed in the sky during violent thunderstorms, suggesting that particles inside the clouds consolidated because of the heat during a lighting flash. For this reason the rocks were sometimes referred to as thunderstones.

Despite the varying views, a consensus was somehow arrived at. Being a temporary phenomenon, it was agreed, shooting stars had to be something within the atmosphere. These objects were therefore named Meteors meaning 'things in the air'.

© unknown
Ancient Roman coin from the time of Augustus, depicting sacred Meteorite
'Age of Reason' and 'The Enlightenment', roughly within the 18th century, were terms used and cherished by those who believed in the power of mind to liberate and improve. Reviewing the experience in 1784, Immanuel Kant saw emancipation from superstition and ignorance as having been the essential characteristic of these times. Philosophers and scientists alike pursued these ideals with enthusiasm and vigour and especially so the Académie Française des Sciences, Europe's leading rational authority. To them may be attributed a strange anomaly that exists in the world today - in museums and collections there is scarcely a single specimen of meteorite that predates the year 1790.

The idea that stones can fall out of the sky was scornfully denounced by the Académie as an unscientific absurdity. Antoine Lavoisier, for example, the father of modern chemistry, told his fellow Academicians, "Stones cannot fall from the sky, because there are no stones in the sky!" The concept of meteorites was thus condemned as nothing but medieval illusions and old wives' tales. Embarrassed museums all over Europe, wishing to be seen to be part of this enlightened 'Age of Reason', hurriedly threw out their cherished meteorite collections with the garbage as humiliating anachronisms from a superstitious past.

Although the last two decades of the eighteenth century saw scientists such as Peter Pallas and Ernst Florens Chladni, risking ridicule by the scientific community through the serious investigation of meteorites, most scientists shared Isaac Newton's view that that no small objects could exist in the interplanetary space. An assumption that left no room for rocks or stones falling from the sky.

Farmers who came to the Académie with samples of meteorites were laughingly shown to the door and denounced as superstitious ignorant peasants. On the night of the 26th of April 1803 however, perceptions started to change. On that night the people of L'Aigle were rudely awoken from their dreams by the thunderous noise of more than 2000 rocks falling from the sky. This undeniable display of meteorites also woke up the Académie Française who were compelled to take notice. They appointed a commission to investigate the event, the result of which was finally a reluctant admission that stones could indeed fall from the sky. Museums, freed from the stigma of non-conformity , started creating meteorite collections once again.

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Contemporary map of the L'Aigle strewnfield...
Strangely perhaps, American science did not wholeheartedly accept the Académie's findings until many years later. When, for example, in 1807, two Connecticut Scholars (one of them the chemist Benjamin Silliman) reported having witnessed a fall, President Thomas Jefferson (who had studied natural sciences) made a memorable statement. "I would sooner believe that two Yankee professors would lie than that stones would fall from heaven!" As in Europe it took a dramatic heavenly display, the 1833 Leonid Meteor Shower, before the American Astronomers turned to the subject of meteors and meteorites with any seriousness.

So science eventually learned to accept the idea that rocks, sometimes very very big rocks - could fall from space. The notion of thunderstones forming within the earth's atmosphere was relegated to the rubbish can of folklore. But not quite, because even in recent times reports of stones falling to the ground during heavy thunderstorms still occasionally occur as this report from the March 14, 1920 issue of Nature indicates:
"During a heavy thunderstorm which ensued on Monday, March 4, between 2:30 p.m. and 4.15 p.m., an aerolite was observed to fall at Conleny Heath, near St. Albans. The observed who has placed the specimen in my hands for examination, stated that the stone fell within a few feet from where he was standing, and that it entered the ground for a distance of about 3 feet. Its fall was accompanied by an unusually heavy clap of thunder. The example weighs 5 pounds 14 1/2 ounces and measures 6 3/4 inches by 5-5/8 inches at its great length and breadth respectively. The mass is irregularly ovate on the one side, and broken in outline on the other. The actual surface throughout is fairly deeply pitted, and under magnification exhibits the usual chondritic structure of the crystalline matter with interspersed particles of what appears to be nickeliferous iron."
The author of the report, G.E. Bullen, submitted the stone to the British Museum where it was examined and astonishingly, determined not to be of meteorite origin. Did they mean that thunderstones really do exist then? Science once ridiculed the concept of meteorites. Perhaps sometime in the future they may prove to be wrong about thunderstones also. That's not very likely though.

There are many strange things in the world today that ordinary and credible people in their millions report on a daily basis, only to be denounced as lies and illusions by our equivalents of the "Age of Reason's' Académie Française. Denouncements without genuine scientific investigation are indicative of vested interest and closed minds.

© unknown
"A man is wise with the wisdom of his time only, and ignorant with its ignorance." - Henry David Thoreau.
The Ellerslie Meteorite

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The Ellerslie Meteorite was chipped where it hit the roof...

At 9.30 am on 12 June 2004 a meteorite smashed into the roof of the Archer family home in Elleslie, Auckland. After punching a hole through the roof the meteorite penetrated the family's couch bouncing around the living room before coming to rest.
© unknown
The Ellerslie Meteorite was chipped where it hit the roof...

The 1.3kg, 4600 million-year-old meteorite, identified as a Eucrite - a class of stone meteorite, must have travelled hundreds of millions of kilometres to reach Earth. A journey that would have begun millions of years ago. It now can be viewed in the Auckland museum.
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Brenda Archer with the meteorite that smashed into her house...

Click here to view a video clip of Brenda Archer talking about the experience (link will open in a new window).

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