Venus is the Perfect Place to Count Meteors

DALL-E illustration depicting a meteor streaking through the atmosphere of Venus.

Watching meteoroids enter the Earth’s atmosphere and streak across the sky as the visual spectacle known as meteors, it is one of the most awe-inspiring spectacles on Earth, often exhibiting multiple colors as they blaze through the atmosphere, which often reveals their mineral compositions. But what if we could detect and observe meteors streaking through the atmospheres of other planets that possess atmospheres, like Venus, and use this to better determine meteoroid compositions and sizes?

This is what a recently accepted study to Icarus hopes to address as a pair of international researchers investigate how a future Venus orbiter could be used to study meteors streaking through the planet’s thick atmosphere. This study holds the potential to help scientists better understand meteoroids throughout the solar system.

Continue reading “Venus is the Perfect Place to Count Meteors”

Another Meteoroid Discovered Right Before it Hits the Atmosphere

A meteoroid lights up the sky over the English Channel on February 12, 2023. Image courtesy of Muhammed Uzzal, via ESA.

A meteoroid lit up the sky above the English Channel early Monday morning February as it streaked through the atmosphere, and because it had been detected just a few hours beforehand – with expert precision on where it could be seen — skywatchers were able to capture the event.

Astronomer Krisztián Sárneczky found the 1-meter (3 ft) asteroid just half a day before it came through Earth’s atmosphere. Sárneczky used 60-cm Schmidt telescope at the Piszkéstet? Observatory in Hungary, and originally named it  Sar2667. After multiple observations, the object was re-designated as 2023 CX1 and was predicted with 100% certainty to hit Earth in the skies above the English Channel. Astronomers continued to track the object, then it blazed through the atmosphere over Europe right on schedule.

Continue reading “Another Meteoroid Discovered Right Before it Hits the Atmosphere”

The Oort Cloud Could Have More Rock Than Previously Believed

This artist's concept puts Solar System distances in perspective. The scale bar is in astronomical units, with each set distance beyond 1 AU representing 10 times the previous distance (logarithmic scale.) The image shows Voyager 2's location in 2018. (It also shows where the star Ross 248 will be in 40,000 years, when it will briefly be the closest star to the Sun.) Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Oort Cloud is a collection of icy objects in the furthest reaches of the Solar System. It contains the most distant objects in the Solar System, and instead of orbiting on a plane like the planets or forming a ring like the Kuiper Belt, it’s a vast spherical cloud centred on the Sun. It’s where comets originate, and beyond it is interstellar space.

At least that’s what scientists think; nobody’s ever seen it.

Continue reading “The Oort Cloud Could Have More Rock Than Previously Believed”

What Does Micrometeoroid Damage do to Gossamer Structures Like Webb’s Sunshield?

Sunshield test unit on NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is unfurled for the first time at Northrup Grumman. Credit: NASA

Tiny little bullets flood the solar system, each micrometeoroid a potential hazard. New research has found that the James Webb Space Telescope’s thin sunshields, and future inflatable spacecraft, may be at risk.

Continue reading “What Does Micrometeoroid Damage do to Gossamer Structures Like Webb’s Sunshield?”

MESSENGER Saw a Meteoroid Strike Mercury

Artist’s illustration depicting how MESSENGER observed the first meteoroid impact on another planet’s surface. Particles (neutral atoms) ejected by the meteoroid skyrocketed over 3,000 miles above Mercury’s surface, outside the bow shock of Mercury’s magnetosphere. There, photons of light turned the neutral particles into charged particles (ions), which one of MESSENGER’s instruments could detect. Credit: modified from Jacek Zmarz

Telescopes have captured meteoroids hitting the Moon and several spacecraft imaged Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 smacking into Jupiter in 1994. But impacts as they happen on another rocky world have never been observed.

However, the MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) mission may have seen an impact take place back in 2013. In looking at archival data from the mission, scientists found evidence of a meteoroid impact on Mercury.  While this data isn’t a ‘no-doubt’ photo of the event, it does tell scientists more about impacts and how they affect Mercury’s wispy-thin atmosphere.

Continue reading “MESSENGER Saw a Meteoroid Strike Mercury”

Video Shows a Meteoroid Skipping off Earth’s Atmosphere

Here’s something we don’t see very often: an Earth-grazing meteoroid.

On September 22, 2020, a small space rock skipped through Earth’s atmosphere and bounced back into space. The meteoroid was spotted by the by a camera from the Global Meteor Network, seen in the skies above Northern Germany and the Netherlands. It came in as low as 91 km (56 miles) in altitude – far below any orbiting satellites – before it skipping back into space.

Continue reading “Video Shows a Meteoroid Skipping off Earth’s Atmosphere”

Bennu is Constantly Getting Sandblasted by Tiny Meteoroids

This mosaic image of asteroid Bennu is composed of 12 images collected on Dec. 2, 2018, by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft's PolyCam instrument from a range of 15 miles (24 kilometers). Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

As soon as the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrived at asteroid Bennu in December 2018, there was a big surprise. Scientists expected Bennu’s surface would consist of fine-grained material like a sandy beach. But take a look at that surface: Bennu is a jumbled mess.

Here’s a closer view:

Continue reading “Bennu is Constantly Getting Sandblasted by Tiny Meteoroids”

Meteors Explode from the Inside When They Reach the Atmosphere

According to a new study, meteors may be less dangerous than we thought, thanks to Earth's atmosphere. Credit: David A Aguilar (CfA).

Earth is no stranger to meteors. In fact, meteor showers are a regular occurrence, where small objects (meteoroids) enter the Earth’s atmosphere and radiate in the night sky. Since most of these objects are smaller than a grain of sand, they never reach the surface and simply burn up in the atmosphere. But every so often, a meteor of sufficient size will make it through and explode above the surface, where it can cause considerable damage.

A good example of this is the Chelyabinsk meteoroid, which exploded in the skies over Russia in February of 2013. This incident demonstrated just how much damage an air burst meteorite can do and highlighted the need for preparedness. Fortunately, a new study from Purdue University indicates that Earth’s atmosphere is actually a better shield against meteors than we gave it credit for.

Their study, which was conducted with the support of NASA’s Office of Planetary Defense, recently appeared in the scientific journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science – titled “Air Penetration Enhances Fragmentation of Entering Meteoroids. The study team consisted of Marshall Tabetah and Jay Melosh,  a postdoc research associate and a professor with the department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) at Purdue University, respectively.

In the past, researchers have understood that meteoroids often explode before reaching the surface, but they were at a loss when it came to explaining why. For the sake of their study, Tabetah and Melosh used the Chelyabinsk meteoroid as a case study to determine exactly how meteoroids break up when they hit our atmosphere. At the time, the explosion came as quite the a surprise, which was what allowed for such extensive damage.

When it entered the Earth’s atmosphere, the meteoroid created a bright fireball and exploded minutes later, generating the same amount of energy as a small nuclear weapon. The resulting shockwave blasted out windows, injuring almost 1500 people and causing millions of dollars in damages. It also sent fragments hurling towards the surface that were recovered, and some were even used to fashion medals for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

But what was also surprising was how much of the meteroid’s debris was recovered after the explosion. While the meteoroid itself weighed over 9000 metric tonnes (10,000 US tons), only about 1800 metric tonnes (2,000 US tons) of debris was ever recovered. This meant that something happened in the upper atmosphere that caused it to lose the majority of its mass.

Looking to solve this, Tabetah and Melosh began considering how high-air pressure in front of a meteor would seep into its pores and cracks, pushing the body of the meteor apart and causing it to explode. As Melosh explained in a Purdue University News press release:

“There’s a big gradient between high-pressure air in front of the meteor and the vacuum of air behind it. If the air can move through the passages in the meteorite, it can easily get inside and blow off pieces.”

The two main smoke trails left by the Russian meteorite as it passed over the city of Chelyabinsk. Credit: AP Photo/Chelyabinsk.ru

To solve the mystery of where the meteoroid’s mass went, Tabetah and Melosh constructed models that characterized the entry process of the Chelyabinsk meteoroid that also took into account its original mass and how it broke up upon entry. They then developed a unique computer code that allowed both solid material from the meteoroid’s body and air to exist in any part of the calculation. As Melosh indicated:

“I’ve been looking for something like this for a while. Most of the computer codes we use for simulating impacts can tolerate multiple materials in a cell, but they average everything together. Different materials in the cell use their individual identity, which is not appropriate for this kind of calculation.”

This new code allowed them to fully simulate the exchange of energy and momentum between the entering meteoroid and the interacting atmospheric air. During the simulations, air that was pushed into the meteoroid was allowed to percolate inside, which lowered the strength of the meteoroid significantly. In essence, air was able to reach the insides of the meteoroid and caused it to explode from the inside out.

This not only solved the mystery of where the Chelyabinsk meteoroid’s missing mass went, it was also consistent with the air burst effect that was observed in 2013. The study also indicates that when it comes to smaller meteroids, Earth’s best defense is its atmosphere. Combined with early warning procedures, which were lacking during the Chelyabinsk meteroid event, injuries can be avoided in the future.

This is certainly good news for people concerned about planetary protection, at least where small meteroids are concerned. Larger ones, however, are not likely to be affected by Earth’s atmosphere. Luckily, NASA and other space agencies make it a point to monitor these regularly so that the public can be alerted well in advance if any stray too close to Earth. They are also busy developing counter-measures in the event of a possible collision.

Further Reading: Purdue University, Meteoritics & Planetary Science

Weekly Space Hangout – June 2, 2017: Mike Simmons of Astronomers Without Borders

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest:
Mike Simmons is the President of Astronomer Without Borders. Mike is joining us today to discuss how AWB will be engaging the public and our schools both during and following the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. You can find the AWB Eclipse education program website here.
If you’d like to purchase eclipse glasses from AWB, all of the proceeds go to science education programs! Order here!

Guests:

Sarah Marquart (Futurism.com / @SagaofSarah)
Brian Koberlein (briankoberlein.com / @BrianKoberlein)

Their stories this week:

Tomorrow, SpaceX Will Transform Spaceflight Forever

NASA Just Unveiled Their Next Mission “We Will Finally Touch the Sun”

Lunar Observer Struck by Meteoroid

Testing Gravitons With BH Mergers

We use a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

Announcements:

The WSH recently welcomed back Mathew Anderson, author of “Our Cosmic Story,” to the show to discuss his recent update. He was kind enough to offer our viewers free electronic copies of his complete book as well as his standalone update. Complete information about how to get your copies will be available on the WSH webpage – just visit http://www.wsh-crew.net/cosmicstory for all the details.

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page

Potential Weekend Meteor Shower Will Pelt the Moon Too!

the shaded or speckled area indicates where May Camelopardalids can stoke the lunar surface. telescopic observers will want to point their telescopes to the shaded dark area at the top right of the lunar disk.

If the hoped-for meteor blast materializes this Friday night / Saturday morning (May 23-24) Earth won’t be the only world getting peppered with debris strewn by comet 209P/LINEAR. The moon will zoom through the comet’s dusty filaments in tandem with us.

Bill Cooke, lead for NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Officealerts skywatchers to the possibility of lunar meteorite impacts starting around 9:30 p.m. CDT Friday night through 6 a.m. CDT (2:30-11 UTC) Saturday morning with a peak around 1-3 a.m. CDT (6-8 UTC). 

While western hemisphere observers will be in the best location, these times indicate that European and African skywatchers might also get a taste of the action around the start of the lunar shower. And while South America is too far south for viewing the Earth-directed Camelopardalids, the moon will be in a good position to have a go at lunar meteor hunting. Find your moonrise time HERE.

Earlier lunar impact on the earthlit portion of the moon. Credit: NASA
Earlier lunar impact on the earthlit portion of the moon recorded by video camera. Credit: NASA

The thick crescent moon will be well-placed around peak viewing time for East Coast skywatchers, shining above Venus in the eastern sky near the start of morning twilight. For the Midwest, the moon will just be rising at that hour, while skywatchers living in the western half of the country will have to wait until after maximum for a look:

“Anyone in the U.S. should monitor the moon until dawn,” said Cooke, who estimates that impacts might shine briefly at magnitude +8-9.

Any meteors hitting the moon will also be burning up as meteors in Earth's skies from the direction of the dim constellation Camelopardalis the Giraffe located in the northern sky below Polaris in the Little Dipper. Stellarium
Any meteors hitting the moon will also be burning up as meteors in Earth’s skies from the direction of the dim constellation Camelopardalis the Giraffe located in the northern sky below Polaris in the Little Dipper. Stellarium

“The models indicate the Camelopardalids have some big particles but move slowly around 16 ‘clicks’ a second (16 km/sec or 10 miles per second). It all depends on kinetic energy”, he added. Kinetic energy is the energy an object possesses due to its motion. Even small objects can pack a wallop if they’re moving swiftly.


Bright lunar meteorite impact recorded on video on September 11, 2013. The estimated 900-lb. space rock flared to 4th magnitude.

Lunar crescents are ideal for meteor impact monitoring because much of the moon is in shadow, illuminated only by the dim glow of earthlight. Any meteor strikes stand out as tiny flashes against the darkened moonscape. For casual watching of lunar meteor impacts, you’ll need a 4-inch or larger telescope magnifying from 40x up to around 100x. Higher magnification is unnecessary as it restricts the field of view.

I can’t say how easy it will be to catch one, but it will require patience and a sort of casual vigilance. In other words, don’t look too hard. Try to relax your eyes while taking in the view. That’s why the favored method for capturing lunar impacts is a video camera hooked up to a telescope set to automatically track the moon. That way you can examine your results later in the light of day. Seeing a meteor hit live would truly be the experience of a lifetime. Here are some additional helpful tips.

Meteorite impact flashes seen from 2005 to the present. Fewer are seen in the white areas (lunar highlands) because flashes blend in compared to those occurring on the darker lunar 'seas' or maria. Credit: NASA
Meteorite impact flashes seen from 2005 to the present. Fewer are recorded in the white areas (lunar highlands) because the flashes blend into the landscape compared to those occurring on the darker lunar ‘seas’ or maria. Click for more information on lunar impacts. Credit: NASA

On average, about 73,000 lbs. (33 metric tons) of meteoroid material strike Earth’s atmosphere every day with only tiny fraction of it falling to the ground as meteorites. But the moon has virtually no atmosphere. With nothing in the way, even small pebbles strike its surface with great energy. It’s estimated that a 10-lb. (5 kg) meteoroid can excavate a crater 30 feet (9 meters) across and hurl 165,000 lbs. of lunar soil across the surface.

A meteoroid that size on an Earth-bound trajectory would not only be slowed down by the atmosphere but the pressure and heat it experienced during the plunge would ablate it into very small, safe pieces.

NASA astronomers are just as excited as you and I are about the potential new meteor shower. If you plan to take pictures or video of meteors streaking through Earth’s skies or get lucky enough to see one striking the moon, please send your observations / photos / videos to Brooke Boen ([email protected]) at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Scientists there will use the data to better understand and characterize this newly born meteor blast.

On the night of May 23-24, Bill Cooke will host a live web chat from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. EDT with a view of the skies over Huntsville, Alabama. Check it out.