All-Sky Camera Captures Mysterious Flashes

Article written: 18 Oct , 2011
Updated: 14 Jan , 2016
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Video

Every couple of weeks or so a strange flash appears on an all-sky camera that searches for meteors. What could it be? Take a look at the video above and maybe you can help solve the mystery.

“They are not iridium flares because they are stationary,” said James Beauchamp, an amateur astronomer who hosts the meteor camera for Sandia National Labs and New Mexico State University, and who posted this video on You Tube. “And they are not geosynchronous satellites because the azimuth/elevation are too far North. They are reflective because they always happen just prior to or after sunrise/sunset. Whatever it is, it’s slow and BIG.”

Beauchamp says he see a flash like this about once every month or so. Some are really bright like this one, and others are just small blinks.

“It would be awesome if this mystery was some cool unknown object or secret atmospheric/orbital activity, but the real answer is probably very disappointing,” said Beauchamp in an email to Universe Today. He’s guessing it is a satellite with a big, reflective panel that appears at the right place and time for a direct reflection from the sun to the camera.

And the five points that are visible are most likely due to the optics (lens + iris), and the type of CCD. “Bright points of light tend to “spill” into surrounding CCD points and make the dots have strange features,” the object with the four corners overlaid by the software to show you what it triggered on,” said Beauchamp. (corrected 12:45 pm CDT)

But the cool, mysterious part here, said Beauchamp, is that no one can figure out exactly which satellite it is. It likely is a “secret” spy satellite that the coordinates and overhead pass times aren’t listed on places like Heavens Above or CalSky.

“When I posted the video, some of the high-caliber observers around the globe responded with ‘Yeah, it’s probably this or that type, but let’s crunch some numbers to see if it is,’” Beauchamp said, but so far no one has come up with a satellite that fits all the criteria.

Beauchamp has come up with a few ‘Sherlock Holmes’ facts that narrows down a few things:

1. Unlike most flares, it is stationary when it flashes, which means a high earth orbit, or elliptical one. Most satellites are in low Earth orbit, which means they are moving fast, and this is not one of them, so it is not a GPS, Iridium, or research satellite.

2. The flashes always occur within a couple of hours of sunrise/sunset – which means they are in direct sunlight. So it’s not some strange atmospheric thing.

3. The elevation over the earth is too far North to be a satellite in geosynchronous orbit. This particular flash in the video above was about +30 degrees.

4. Cross-check with freeware such as Orbitron and NORAD TLE’s show no satellites around that would make such a flare – e.g. they are all LEO or not in the line of sight and general direction.

“A lot of people see these flashes and it tends to freak them out a bit,” Beauchamp said. But he considers it a fun mystery to try and solve.

Can you help?

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33 Responses

  1. Etienne Rollin says

    The four “objects” seems to simply be markers added by the recording software showing the identification of a bright object. If you look closely, they are shaped like L’s. Which software do you use to record the movie?

  2. Anonymous says

    My guess would be a meteor looking to smack your head. Coming straight at you or rather the Camera.

  3. William Nicholls says

    The satellite is too far north to be geostationary, but it could be geosynchronous. A geostationary satellite appears to be in a fixed position in the sky and must be at a near-equatorial orbit. A geosynchronous satellite would apparently wander a repeating pattern in the sky. The timing of the satellite’s rotation could also synch to the geostationary cycle.

    And yes, the four corner markers appear to be software identifying a bright target. There’s a threshold brightness before they appear and they disappear below that threshold.

  4. Christopher Ferro says

    I agree with Etienne Rollin: The four outer “objects” are clearly brackets.. neat little “L” shaped markers bracketing the bright flash. I think you might need to rewrite the article or something, because saying it’s a 5-point flash isn’t correct.

    CJSF

  5. The flash does not look stationary to me.

  6. Vedran says

    Maybe satellite in Molnya orbit?

  7. Symbol says

    Could be secret military thing. Or Bender’s shiny metal ass.

  8. James says

    WOW, lots of good comments. I forgot to clarify that yes, the Sentinel software will place little brackets around the object it was triggered with. If that’s the “Five points”, I misunderstood. Sometimes you see radials around a bright object due to the optics. On the head-on meteor, they are very rare, and the radar scatter receiver should have had a hit (in most cases). Most likely it IS Molniya or some strange hybrid. This particular one DID move a tiny little bit, but the others don’t. I think this one showed movement because the flare was exceptionally bright. If the Wsentinel triggers on one, I usually stash the capture in a directory, so I’ll try and put together a video of them all and post.

  9. Anonymous says

    watch other clips, the 4 marks are…as said below
    still the question,what could that be?…normaly expect the unexpected, but… I’m sure it’s just either debri or satellite that, maybe, is offline. i hope not.

  10. John Murrell says

    An iridium flare does not move that much during the second or two it is bright. The 4 L shaped markers form a box around the object, they are quite clear if you view the video full screen. The only plausible explanation that they are introduced by some software that is looking for bright changing objects in the frame

    QED ?

  11. Anonymous says

    Possibly a dead satellite, probe, or rocket booster that has come to a stable position at one of Earth’s Lagrange points.

    • Anonymous says

      If that object is at L3, L4 or L5 then it is ENORMOUS given it’s brightness in the video! It can’t be at L1 (we’d see it with the moon) and L2 is hidden by the moon. I like the Molniya or geosynchronous orbit hypothesis better.

  12. Anonymous says

    It is possibly sun glint off a dead satellite, probe or rocket booster that has come to rest at one of Earth’s Lagrange points.

  13. FJW says

    Why doesn’t some nerd build a small missile in his basement and then launch it from a rural place and shoot it down? Or maybe some other nerd can triangulate some radio emissions coming from it and save the code for future deciphering and then hack into it.

    We can NOT tolerate this type of secrecy.

  14. Gamma ray burst. We’re all doomed.

  15. petr says

    aww, such a shame is wasn’t really 5 simultaneous flashes with the outer 4 a perfect square!

  16. Anonymous says

    Is it possible this video is time-lapsed in any way? I’ve seen two lights like this (about a month apart) in different areas of the sky above SLC, Utah. They were both bright Orange/yellow and appeared to flicker. At first I thought it was a chinese wishing lantern, until I saw another one last night. (i’m not saying they couldn’t be still, but the second one appeared higher up in the sky, and neither were moving) The one last night was next to Jupiter and was flickering about twice as bright. Both lasted at least 40 seconds though, but were around the same intensity. The one I saw last night really freaked me out, I had my 100 mw green laser with me, pointed it at the object, and that’s when it flickered and went away. I still think it was a coincidence, but the unknown always gets me.

  17. Anonymous says

    Is it possible this video is time-lapsed in any way? I’ve seen two lights like this (about a month apart) in different areas of the sky above SLC, Utah. They were both bright Orange/yellow and appeared to flicker. At first I thought it was a chinese wishing lantern, until I saw another one last night. (i’m not saying they couldn’t be still, but the second one appeared higher up in the sky, and neither were moving) The one last night was next to Jupiter and was flickering about twice as bright. Both lasted at least 40 seconds though, but were around the same intensity. The one I saw last night really freaked me out, I had my 100 mw green laser with me, pointed it at the object, and that’s when it flickered and went away. I still think it was a coincidence, but the unknown always gets me.

  18. Aleksandar Paunkovski says

    Incredible, i see one yesterday exactly like this.
    Location: Macedonia, Skopje at north. It was happen at sunset. The spot light was yellow/orange and bright like Jupiter at night.

  19. Celso Moiteiro says

    I believe it has to do with the lights of the car that pass on the upper corner left, imediately as the lights disapear behind the structure (house or whatever) the 5 lights appear, the lights are just the result of a reflect from the light of the car in somekind of way with the camera, i dont know how the camera phisically is build (and that when the car goes behind the structure there is allways some clarity caused by the car until he is gone??), but that´s just it!!! you can see also that the 5 “flashes” move equaly to the left and up not straight but round, and the view of the camera is round that is likely the reason for that round movement,until the lights of the car do not interfeer anymore with the cam
    Sorry for my bad english and perhaps that i did not make myself clear.

    • Anonymous says

      You are correct, this is a phenomenon known as optical refraction and is most pronounced through a “fish eye” type camera lens. These lenses have a such a wide angle that in a way they can act like a prism and bend a beam of light into the camera from an oblique angle. I noticed the precursor light you saw at about 11:00 in the field of view. This must cause the artifact in the lens through direct or secondary reflection. Quite a simple explanation. All clues are here.

    • Anonymous says

      You are correct, this is a phenomenon known as optical refraction and is most pronounced through a “fish eye” type camera lens. These lenses have such a wide angle that in a way they can act like a prism and bend a beam of light into the camera from an oblique angle. I noticed the precursor light you saw at about 11:00 in the field of view right before the flash. This must cause the artifact in the lens through direct or secondary reflection. Quite a simple explanation. All the clues are here.

  20. Celso Moiteiro says

    In fact it is just one light, but the cam (the lens or round lens) creates the other 4, the middle is the main reflect, than the lens (i guess round?) in it makes the 4 other reflect of the first

  21. Anonymous says

    Anyone consider the possibility of sunlight glinting off an aircraft’s windows or reflecting off of the aircraft itself?

  22. Anonymous says

    Well, reviewing the video several times, unlikely an aircraft. However, as stated, a central flare with added corners.

  23. Anonymous says

    Is this the start of a new feature? What in The Universe?

  24. Member
    Anonymous says

    As an amateur astronomer.. I’ve seen similar flashes many times. Usually attributable to direct angle meteorites, but whose nose? Whatever the source, they are always interesting and provocative. It would be great if a wealthy amateur would fund more all sky camera’s to expand them into a world wide network…. hint – hint. I’d volunteer for maintenance duties!

  25. Richard says

    What about a “head on” meteor? You would see no trail because it comes at you straight on from your perspective. It would appear as a sudden flash without any point of origin. This could be quite disconcerting since it would essentially be a meteor with your name written on it!

  26. Nathan says

    9 LED flashlight. Final answer.

  27. Anonymous says

    Space Trash! I hear there’s a lot of it.

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