The Great Meteorite Processions of February 1913 and 2013

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Herschel’s Andromeda
Image Credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS & SPIRE Consortium, O. Krause, HSC, H. Linz

Explanation of the Herschel

I hope you like the above infrared image of the Andromeda Galaxy. The picture was made from the Herschel, the European Space Agency’s equivalent of our own Hubble satellite. The Herschel was put into orbit in 2009 and features very sophisticated infrared technology.

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Herschel in space, close up on its mirror, photo from ESA

The Rediscovery of an Extraordinary Century Old Astronomical Event

Recently, a great astronomical event that occurred almost a hundred years ago to the day that the Russian meteors struck, has been making the rounds of the scientific press.  Spurred on by a painting made by an amateur astronomer and art teacher in Toronto, named Gustav Hahn, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has recently published an article about the spectacular meteor shower that lit up the skies from western Canada to Bermuda and even Brazil.

This spectacular display of fireballs took place over a 24 hour period with the most numerous sightings occurring in eastern Canada. On February 9th 2013, NASA prophetically described the 100-year old event in this way: “Although nothing quite like the Great Meteor Procession of 1913 has been reported since, numerous bright fireballs — themselves pretty spectacular — have since been recorded, some even on video”.

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This painting by artist and amateur astronomer Gustav Hahn depicts the meteor procession of February 9, 1913, as observed near High Park in Toronto. Credit: University of Toronto Archives (A2008-0023), © Natalie McMinn

The Reconstructed Image

The above image is a digital scan of the original picture, which was a halftone, hand-painted image that is now part of the University of Toronto archives.

Russian meteor
Still image from Russian videos, picture from the BusinessInsider

Strange Coincidence

Strangely enough, the NASA story appeared on its Astronomy Picture of the Day site just six days before the meteor exploded above the Ural Mountains of Russia, causing a spectacular view that was widely recorded on video and rapidly disseminated around the world. All of this just goes to prove that sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction.

 

Strange Happenings On Planet Earth Today

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A meteor streaked through the skies above Russia’s Chelyabinsk region , photo from UniverseToday

Central Russia Hit With Meteorites

Thanks to the popularity of dashboard cams the internet is abuzz with images and video footage of the meteor(s) that exploded high in the atmosphere near the city of Chelyabinsk, which is located in the Ural Mountains of Russia. According to news reports about a 1,000 people were treated for injuries, mostly from flying glass. Fortunately, no one was killed and none of the injuries were life-threatening.  The meteor strike occurred just hours before asteroid da14 passed close to the earth’s surface.

The Official Version

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Hole in ice caused by meteorite, from CNN

NASA asteroid expert Don Yeomans, head of the agency’s Near-Earth Object Program Office, was quoted as saying that the event in Russia was not linked to the close flyby of the large asteroid that occurred later on in the same day. Yeoman’s scientific opinion was confirmed by many other scientists including Richard Binzel of MIT, Paul Chodas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif, Bill Cooke of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. as well as experts at the European Space Agency.

The Crackpots

Not everybody agreed with the scientific experts, including one Russian official named Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who said the explosion was the United States testing out a new nuclear device. Although the explosion had the force much greater than the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, it lacked the severe damage because the meteor blew up many miles above the surface of the earth.

The Minority Dissenters

Not everybody believed that the meteor (or meteors) that exploded in Russia were unrelated to the asteroid flyby. For there appeared to be a small cadre of scientists that believed the meteors exploding above Russia were in some way related to the large asteroid that passed by the earth much later in the same day. On CBS, Michio Kaku, a physics professor at the City University of New York, stated that asteroids often occur in swarms or “showers” and so the meteors that passed over Russia may have some connection to the larger asteroid.

Other scientists who share similar views include Tatiana Bordovitsina, an astronomy professor at Tomsk State University in western Siberia, Curtin University asteroid expert Phil Bland of Australia and Professor Ian Crawford of Birkbeck University, who said;  “if meteorites were traveling with the asteroid, they would be several hours ahead of it.”

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LL Ori and the Orion Nebula
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team

Scientific Reality

I think that this difference in viewpoints among scientists is fascinating and that ultimately the minority view that the two events are related will prevail. History is just full of too many instances where the majority scientific opinion has been proven more, for me to think otherwise. No matter how this story turns stay in touch for the debate could be very interesting and entertaining.

Asteroid Flyby Tomorrow

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On Tomorrow February 15,2013 asteroid da14 will pass close by planet earth, image from NASA

How Close and How Big

This asteroid will pass about 17,000 miles from the surface of the earth. At it nearest point it will be closer than the moon and will travel inside the orbit of some satellites. When it does so the space rock will be nearest the South Pacific nation of Sumatra. This asteroid is estimated to be about 150 feet in diameter, which is approximately the same size as the one that hit the Siberian region of Russia in 1908. No ill effects are expected from tomorrow’s flyby.

Asteroid 2012 da14 Returns In 2020

This very same asteroid has an elliptical orbit around the sun and so it will pass by the earth again in another seven years, but it is not expected to hit the earth at this time, either. If an asteroid of this size were to strike the earth, it is estimated that the damage would be similar to the  Tunguska Event of 1908 that has already been mentioned above.

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Asteroids in the Distance
Image Credit: R. Evans & K. Stapelfeldt (JPL), WFPC2, HST, NASA

Following da14

Thanks to the internet and modern astronomical observing technology this close passby can be viewed via several different webcasts. These include our very own NASA, along with the Slooh Space Camera, Virtual Telescope Project (Italy) and Bareket Observatory (Israel). The NASA link gives amateur astronomers a chance to track the fast-moving object with a good pair of binoculars or a small telescope. The asteroid will first appear in the southern hemisphere near the Southern Cross and this point it will shine at its brightest.

Eventually, the space object will be visible in the Northern Hemisphere between the Big and Little Dippers, but by this time the high speed traveler will be much dimmer.

A Near Miss Is On Its Way

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Photograph of the Vesta asteroid from the Dawn spacecraft on July 24, 2011, photo from NASA

The Big Event

On Friday February 15, 2013 an asteroid, half the size of a football field is due to pass about 17, 000 miles from the surface of earth. In astronomical terms that is a “near miss”, but including to all sources, including NASA, no unusual side effects are expected from the extra-terrestrial object, which has been officially named asteroid  2012 DA14.

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First NASA video released on January 28, 2013 showing an animation sequence of the close pass-by of asteroid DA14, image and video from NASA

Something Strange Going On Here

The strange thing going on here is not the so much the close passage of the asteroid, but rather NASA’s PR effort in explaining the science behind what will happen on February 15. One of those unique events is a teleconference tomorrow on Feb. 7th explaining what can be learned from the approach of this asteroid. Also of note is a second animated video that was put together by the NASA Jet Propulsion laboratory, just yesterday.  Again NASA is using visual images to downplay the presence of DA14, but in reality, these graphic depictions may be actually having the opposite effect. Stay tuned this may get interesting.

Update On the End of the World

Black Hole Outflows from Centaurus A
Black Hole Outflows from Centaurus A
Source: ESO/WFI (Optical); MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. (Submillimetre); NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al. (X-ray)

End of the Mayan Calendar

On December 21 during the winter solstice the Mayan calendar comes to an end. Reaction to this long-awaited event varies greatly. Some would say so what, while others might ask what’s a solstice. Not surprisingly, the actual number of people who believe that the world will come to an end are actually pretty small.

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The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, Mexico, from Wikipedia, photo by Ricraider

A Strange Encounter

It was a chance encounter in a Santa Fe coffeehouse. The 30-something year old male was planning to be in Mexico for the upcoming solstice to witness the shortest day of the year from a Mayan temple; and have a good time with other observers of the annual celestial event. The prospective traveler did not really expect the world to end, but he did seem susceptible to the New Age idea that this ancient date might usher in a new era of peace and understanding among the human population that now is believed to number around 7 billion. Also, he was reading a book called, Phobos by Steve Alten.

Steve Alten’s Mayan Trilogy Series

Steve Alten is an interesting, if not unusual writer. He is probably best known for his Meg series, a collection of four novels about a giant prehistoric shark found in the deep waters of the Pacific. Steve began his career in college sports medicine, then he decided to write a novel in his spare time. Writing the novel was easy, but selling the manuscript was more difficult. By the time he nailed down a two book deal, he had quit his sports job, gone through his life savings and was barely getting by. His more recently relesed Domain Trilogy uses the Mayan Temples for a backdrop to a fantastic sci-fi complete with time travelers and extra-terrestrial aliens. The three novels in this series are called Domain, Resurrection and Phobos: Mayan Fear.

Solar and Lunar Eclipse

A Solar eclipse from 1999, from Wikipedia, photo by Luc Viatour
A Solar eclipse from 1999, from Wikipedia, photo by Luc Viatour

Recently a small lunar eclipse was observed in the Northern Hemisphere. However, not too far in the recent past a much more pronounced solar eclipse occurred in Australia and the South Pacific. Even though these two events have occurred close to the End of the Mayan Calendar, there is no evidence that they are related. In fact, most scientists do not attribute any special significance to the End of the Mayan Calendar. It is no different from our annual Roman calendar, which ends every 12 months, except there is a much longer time frame involved with the Central American document.

The sun as seen from a NASA space probe
The sun as seen from a NASA space probe

NASA and December 21, 2012

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, our 4 billion year old planet will not come to an end on December 21, 2012. The alignment of the planets will have a negligible effect on our planet, nor will the planet, Nibiru, crash into the third planet back from the sun. The experts say that if a tenth planet was headed our way, it would show up in the night sky as a very bright object for many weeks before impact. And furthermore, solar activity is expected to remain at its’ current normal levels for the next several years.

Ah shucks, looks like I’m going to have to do my Christmas shopping after all.

Fireballs, Meteors, Meteorites and Other Assorted Extra-terrestrial Phenomena

Meteor from the Leonid Shower in 2009
Meteor from the Leonid Shower in 2009 courtesy Wikipedia

Texas Daytime Fireball

Last week a rare daytime meteor was observed flashing across the Texas sky. To observers on the ground, the celestial object appeared brighter than even the sun. According to NASA, spring fireballs come from asteroids and have a tendency to peak during the months of February and late March/ early April. The article went on to say that fall meteors originate from comets. Much of this information comes from observation and specially located cameras set up by NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. Still, much has to be learned about this natural phenomenon.

Green Fireballs In Northern  New Mexico

This winter while walking home at 8 p.m. in northern New Mexico, where I currently reside, I was fortunate to witness a meteor that dropped straight down out of the sky. As it neared the earth’s surface, the glowing object exploded into a large green-colored fireball and then abruptly disintegrated before hitting solid land. My first impression was that I had just witnessed a shooting star, which almost landed. However, a little research indicated some other cause and effect may be at work here. Other sightings by New Mexico residents, along with international data indicate that this particular event has a higher than average frequency in New Mexico. Nonetheless, I was delighted to be a witness to this unique astronomical event. Even stranger was the local radio D.J., who recounted on the air a similar observation made at a different time.

Green Fireballs and Ball Lightning

Nonetheless, the strange downward path of this lighted object raises some questions about the true nature of the nocturnal sighting. Could there be something else at work in this case. A timely article about some similar night time lights in Australia suggest that these green fireballs that drop straight down may be linked to ball lightning. Anyway, it is fun to sit around to sit around on dark winter nights and discuss the meaning of unusual astronomical sightings.

Meteorites, like this one that landed in  Niger, are meteors that survived a descent through the earth’s atmosphere. source meteorite-recon