With Russian Meteor Fresh In Everyone’s Memory, ESA Opens An Asteroid Monitoring Center

It’s been about three months since that infamous meteor broke up over Chelyabinsk, Russia. In that time, there’s been a lot of conversation about how we can better protect ourselves against these space rocks with a potentially fatal (from humanity’s perspective) gravitational attraction to Earth.

This week, the European Space Agency officially inaugurated a “NEO Coordination Centre” that is intended to be asteroid warning central in the European Union. It will be the hub for early warnings on near-Earth objects (hence the ‘NEO’ in the name) under ESA’s space situational awareness program.

ESA estimates that of the 600,000 asteroids and comets that orbit the Sun, about 10,000 of them are NEOs. (They define NEOs as asteroids or comets with sizes of several feet up to several tens of miles.)

NASA, of course, is also gravely concerned about the threat NEOs present. Its administrator, Charles Bolden, talked about this at a Congressional hearing about asteroids in March.

Before delving into the threat, Bolden took a metaphorical deep breath to talk about the dozens of asteroids — a meter or larger — that slam into Earth’s atmosphere each year. Most of them burn up harmlessly, and further, 80 tons of dust-like material rain on Earth daily.

A notable meteor that did cause some damage took place about 100 years ago, in 1908, when an object broke up over an isolated area in Russia and flattened trees for miles. Bolden characterized that as a statistically one-in-a-thousand year event, but added that the “real catch” is this type of event could happen at any time.

NASA, however, is seeking out those that cause a threat. It is supposed to find 90 per cent of asteroids 140 meters or larger by 2020, and is making progress towards that goal. (By comparison, the Chelyabinsk object was estimated at 17 to 20 meters.)

Nine radar images of near-Earth asteroid 2007 PA8 obtained between by NASA's 230-foot-wide (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna. The part of the asteroid closest to the antenna is at top. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Nine radar images of near-Earth asteroid 2007 PA8 obtained between by NASA’s 230-foot-wide (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna. The part of the asteroid closest to the antenna is at top. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

So how to best monitor the threat? Bolden outlined a few ideas: crowdsourcing, coordinating with other federal agencies and making use of automatic feeds from different telescopes throughout the world (as NASA does right now.)

Bolden emphasized that none of the asteroids we have found is on a collision course with the Earth. Still, NASA and other science experts are not complacent.

In the same hearing, John Holdren — the president’s assistant on science and technology — recommended following a National Academy of Sciences report to spend upwards of $100 million a year on asteroid detection and characterization. To mitigate the threat, Holdren further recommended a visit to an asteroid by 2025, which would perhaps cost $2 billion.

Warning Shot: a “Bullet Hole” on the ISS

Canadian astronaut and Expedition 35 commander Chris Hadfield just shared this photo on Twitter, showing a portion of one of the solar array wings on the ISS… with a small but very visible hole made by a passing meteoroid in one of the cells.

In typical poetic fashion, Commander Hadfield referred to the offending object as “a small stone from the universe.”

“Glad it missed the hull,” he added.

Hole in an ISS solar cell made by a meteoroid
Hole in an ISS solar cell made by a meteoroid

While likened to a bullet hole, whatever struck the solar panel was actually traveling much faster when it hit. Most bullets travel at a velocity of around 1,000-2,000 mph (although usually described in feet per second) but meteoroids are traveling through space at speeds of well over 25,000 mph — many times faster than any bullet!

Luckily the ISS has a multi-layered hull consisting of layers of different materials (depending on where the sections were built), providing protection from micrometeorite impacts. If an object were to hit an inhabited section of the Station, it would be slowed down enough by the different layers to either not make it to the main hull or else merely create an audible “ping.”

Unnerving, yes, but at least harmless. Still, it’s a reminder that the Solar System is still very much a shooting gallery and our spacefaring safety relies on the use of technology to protect ourselves.

Image: NASA / Chris Hadfield

Fact: The 110 kilowatts of power for the ISS is supplied by an acre of solar panels!

Astronomers Calculate Orbit and Origins of Russian Fireball

Just a week after a huge fireball streaked across the skies of the Chelyabinsk region of Russia, astronomers published a paper that reconstructs the orbit and determines the origins of the space rock that exploded about 14-20 km (8-12.5 miles) above Earth’s surface, producing a shockwave that damaged buildings and broke windows.

Researchers Jorge Zuluaga and Ignacio Ferrin at the University of Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia used a resource not always available in meteorite falls: the numerous dashboard and security cameras that captured the huge fireball. Using the trajectories shown in videos posted on YouTube, the researchers were able to calculate the trajectory of the meteorite as it fell to Earth and use it to reconstruct the orbit in space of the meteoroid before its violent encounter with our planet.

The results are preliminary, Zuluaga told Universe Today, and they are already working on getting more precise results. “We are working hard to produce an updated and more precise reconstruction of the orbit using different pieces of evidence,” he said via email.

But through their calculations, Zuluaga and Ferrin determined the rock originated from the Apollo class of asteroids.

Using triangulation, the researchers used two videos specifically: one from a camera located in the Revolutionary Square in Chelyabinsk and one video recorded in the a nearby city of Korkino, along with the location of a hole in the ice in Lake Chebarkul, 70km west of Chelyabinsk. The hole is thought to have come from the meteorite that fell on February 15.

Zuluaga and Ferrin were inspired to use the videos by Stefen Geens, who writes the Ogle Earth blog and who pointed out that the numerous dashcam and security videos may have gathered data about the trajectory and speed of the meteorite. He used this data and Google Earth to reconstruct the path of the rock as it entered the atmosphere and showed that it matched an image of the trajectory taken by the geostationary Meteosat-9 weather satellite.

But due to variations in time and date stamps on several of the videos — some which differed by several minutes — they decided to choose two videos from different locations that seemed to be the most reliable.

From triangulation, they were able to determine height, speed and position of the meteorite as it fell to Earth.

This video is a virtual exploration of the preliminary orbit computed by Zuluaga & Ferrin

But figuring out the meteroid’s orbit around the Sun was more difficult as well as less precise. They needed six critical parameters, all which they had to estimate from the data using Monte Carlo methods to “calculate the most probable orbital parameters and their dispersion,” they wrote in their paper. Most of the parameters are related to the “brightening point” – where the meteorite becomes bright enough to cast a noticeable shadow in the videos. This helped determine the meteorite’s height, elevation and azimuth at the brightening point as well as the longitude, latitude on the Earth’s surface below and also the velocity of the rock.

“According to our estimations, the Chelyabinski meteor started to brighten up when it was between 32 and 47 km up in the atmosphere,” the team wrote. “The velocity of the body predicted by our analysis was between 13 and 19 km/s (relative to the Earth) which encloses the preferred figure of 18 km/s assumed by other researchers.”

They then used software developed by the US Naval Observatory called NOVAS, the Naval Observatory Vector Astrometry to calculate the likely orbit. They concluded that the Chelyabinsk meteorite is from the Apollo asteroids, a well-known class of rocks that cross Earth’s orbit.

According to The Technology Review blog, astronomers have seen over 240 Apollo asteroids that are larger than 1 km but believe there must be more than 2,000 others that size.

However, astronomers also estimate there might be about 80 million out there that are about same size as the one that fell over Chelyabinsk: about 15 meters (50 feet) in diameter, with a weight of 7,000 metric tons.

In their ongoing calculations, the research team has decided to make future calculations not using Lake Chebarkul as one of their triangulation points.

“We are acquainted with the skepticism that the holes in the icesheet of the lake have been produced artificially,” Zuluaga told Universe Today via email. “However I have also read some reports indicating that pieces of the meteoroid have been found in the area. So, we are working hard to produce an updated and more precise reconstruction of the orbit using different pieces of evidence.”

Many have asked why this space rock was not detected before, and Zuluaga said determining why it was missed is one of the goals of their efforts.

“Regretfully knowing the family at which the asteroid belongs is not enough,” he said. “The question can only be answered having a very precise orbit we can integrate backwards at least 50 years. Once you have an orbit, that orbit can predict the precise position of the body in the sky and then we can look for archive images and see if the asteroid was overlooked. This is our next move!”

Read the team’s paper here.

The video from Revolutionary Square in Chelyabinsk:

Video recorded in Korkino:

Read more about the Apollo class of asteroids here.

Meteor Blast Rocks Russia

This just in: reports of bright meteors and loud explosions have been coming from Russia, with the incredible video above showing what appears to be a meteor exploding in the atmosphere on the morning of Friday, Feb. 15.

According to Reuters the objects were seen in the skies over the Chelyabinsk and Sverdlovsk regions.

“Preliminary indications are that it was a meteorite rain,” an emergency official told RIA-Novosti. “We have information about a blast at 10,000-meter (32,800-foot) altitude. It is being verified.” UPDATE: The Russian Academy of Sciences has estimated that the single 10-ton meteor entered the atmosphere at around 54,000 kph (33,000 mph) and disintegrated 30-50 kilometers (18-32 miles) up. Nearly 500 people have been injured, most by broken glass — at least 3 in serious condition. (AP)

Chelyabinsk is 930 miles (1,500 km) east of Moscow, in Russia’s Ural Mountains.

Preliminary reports on RT.com state that the meteorite “crashed into a wall near a zinc factory, disrupting the city’s internet and mobile service.” 150 minor injuries have also been reported from broken glass and debris created by the explosion’s shockwave.

ADDED: More videos below:

Contrails and explosions can be heard here, with breaking glass:

Over a city commercial district:

And yet another dash cam:

Watch the garage door get blown in at the 30-second mark:

Here’s a great summary from Russia Today

This event occurs on the same day that Earth is to be passed at a distance of 27,000 km by the 45-meter-wide asteroid 2012 DA14. Coincidence? Most likely. But – more info as it comes!

Read what Phil Plait has to say about this on his Bad Astronomy blog here.

News source: Reuters. H/T to Matt Arnold.

Fires in the Sky: Aurorae and Meteor Photo by Ole Salomonsen

A bright fireball slashes through curtains of aurorae shimmering above the mountains of northern Norway, captured on camera by Ole C. Salomonsen in the early hours of September 20.

Salomonsen, a master at photographing the Northern Lights, says this was the biggest fireball he’s ever caught on camera.

“The fireball lasted for about 6-7 seconds until it vanished behind the mountain,” Ole recalls. “By the way, this mountain is over 1350 meters (4440 feet) high, and I am standing only 600 meters from the foot of it, so do not be fooled by the 14mm wide angle lens! There was some very distinguished blue colors surrounding the fireballs edges. Never ever seen anything big like this!”

The mountain at right is called “Otertinden”, and is about a 90 minute drive north of Tromsø, Norway — a hot spot for stunning auroral displays.

And if you’re wondering if the aurorae and the meteor are really in the same region of the atmosphere, well, they likely are. Incoming meteoroids begin to glow at around 70 to 100 km up, which is also about the same altitude that aurorae are visible.

Although Ole stated that this wasn’t the best aurora photo from the shoot, the fireball and its reflection in the still river made him feel this one “deserved to go first.”

The photo was taken with a Canon EOS 1D-X and a Nikon 14-24mm lens.

See more of Ole’s work on his website, www.arcticlightphoto.no, and you can like his page on Facebook here. (Also he’s got a couple of great time-lapse videos too!)

Image © Ole C. Salomonsen. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Meteorite Crashes Into London Cab


Londoners awoke this morning to news of a meteorite which struck a taxi in the heart of the city’s busy shopping district Covent Garden. Witnesses were left stunned by what looked like a scene straight out of a science fiction film. An incident team arrived almost immediately to cordon off the meteorite and keep the public at a safe distance.

No one was injured as a result of the incident, but it’s a cosmic harbinger of things to come…

Of course, the “things to come” turn out to be 4 weeks of science programs on Eden TV’s Science Month, which starts up in July.

The incident was in fact a well-orchestrated publicity stunt by the UK’s Eden TV (Sky 532 Virgin 208). Science Month will run all day every day during the month of July. Highlights in the first week include Wonders of the Universe (Monday 2 July at 9pm), Finding Life Beyond Earth (Monday 2 July at 10pm), The Code (Wednesday 4 July at 10pm) and Deadliest Volcano (Thursday 5 July at 7pm).

Sure, after all’s said and done it was a PR stunt. But it was a cool PR stunt (even if not quite scientifically accurate!)

Come on, we all know that meteorites aren’t steaming hot when they land. 😉

Valuable Space Rock Crashes Into Oslo Cabin

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A family in Oslo got a surprise when they visited their allotment garden cabin for the first time this season and found that a 585-gram (20 oz.) meteorite had ripped a hole through the roof. The space rock was discovered “lying five or six metres away,” the cabin’s owner, Rune Thomassen, told the local newspaper VG.

Such an event is rare in Norway; since 1848 the country has noted only 14 meteorite discoveries.

Astrophysicist Knut Jørgen Røed Ødegaard from the University of Oslo investigated the report and found it to be genuine.

“You can tell immediately that it’s genuine from the burned crust, and you can also recognize it from how rough and unusual it is. It gives me goosebumps,” Ødegaard told VG.

NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Hans Amundsen noted the meteorite’s unusual composition: “This is a very rare meteorite because you can see from the cut of it that it contains fragments from many different kinds of rock that have cemented together, forming a so-called breccia.”

Such meteorites are caused by previous collisions, cementing together different types of material from impacts with asteroids or planets.This means the meteorite that landed on the Thomassens’ cabin may very well have been blown off the surface of Mars at some point in the distant past!

“This is unique. This is double-unique,” Ødegaard noted to VG.

According to Amundsen, such a meteorite is very valuable to researchers as well as private collectors, who may be willing to pay highly for it. Chunks of Mars have fetched USD $877 per gram in the past… making the Thomassens’ find potentially worth over $500,000!

Norway’s geological museum has the country’s only meteorite collection “and they’re the right ones to determine what kind of meteorite this is,” Amundsen said.

Read more on this story here, and see coverage with photos and video on the VG site here (in Norwegian).

The Meteor and the Nordlys

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A meteor slices through the glow of the northern lights (or “Nordlys”) in this photo by Adon Buckley, taken near the border of Norway and Finland on the night of October 19, 2011.

“The weather was against us, it was raining heavily in the northern Norwegian town of Tromsø,” Adon describes on his Flickr page. “We drove for 2 hours and waited on the Norwegian/Finish border for 3 more and this was at the start of the show on October 19th.”

He adds, “I actually missed the shooting star when it happened, but my friend told me and I was eager to check the exposure when I got home.”

Great catch, Adon! And a wonderful photo as well.

See more of Adon’s photos on his Flickr photostream here.

Image © Adon Buckley. Used with permission.

A Meteorite Visits the Comettes

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When your last name is Comette, I’m sure the occasional astronomy-themed joke is never far away. But it’s no joke that the Comette family living in Draveil, a suburb south of Paris, was paid a visit by a real extraterrestrial a couple of weeks ago – in the form of an 88-gram (3.5 oz.) meteorite that broke through their roof!

The Comettes were on vacation at the time, so didn’t realize their house had been struck by a space rock until they noticed a leak in the roof. When they called in a roofer it was discovered that a thick tile had been completely broken through.

The meteorite was found wedged in insulation.

Mineral scientist Alain Carion investigated the meteorite and determined that it’s an iron-rich chondrite, a 4.57-billion-year-old remnant of the early Solar System that most likely came from the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. About 3/4 of all meteorites that have been observed landing on Earth are chondrites.

While obviously not impossible, the odds of your home being hit my a meteorite are incredibly slim. Only 145 meteorites have been documented landing in the US in the past 200 years. On March 26, 2003, just before midnight, hundreds of fragments of a large meteorite fell in the Park Forest area of Chicago. Several fell through roofs of houses and one punched a hole in the roof of the fire station. One large piece weighing about 2.5 kg (5.5 lb) crashed into a bedroom, narrowly missing a boy who was asleep in his bed! On September 23, 2003, a 20 kg (44 lb) stone meteorite tore straight through a two-storey house in New Orleans and came to rest in the basement. (Source: University of New Mexico Institute of Meteoritics.)

Only about 50 meteorites have been found in France over the past four centuries, and none has ever before been discovered less than 80 km (50 miles) from Paris.

While they could attempt to sell the meteorite that struck their home, possibly fetching several hundred euros for it, the Comettes have decided to keep their otherworldly visitor.

“A piece of the history of space of which we know nothing, but which is fascinating, has fallen on us,” Mrs. Comette told the Le Parisien newspaper. “It’s like a fairytale, and less likely than winning the lottery, we’re told.”

Read more on The Guardian or on The Local.

Image found on Stargazers Lounge.