It came from outer space—literally! On Tuesday, May 17, 2016, the early morning sky briefly lit up with the brilliant flash of a fireball—that is, an extremely bright meteor—over much of eastern New England states and even parts of southeastern Canada.
The event, which occurred around 12:50 a.m. EDT (04:50 UTC), was reported by witnesses from Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Ontario, and Québec, and captured on several automated cameras like a webcam in Portsmouth, NH (seen above) and a police dashcam in Plattsburgh, NY (below).
The fireball appeared to be moving from southwest to northeast and for some witnesses created an audible sonic boom, heard (and felt) several minutes later.
Meteors are the result of debris in space rapidly entering Earth’s upper atmosphere, compressing the air and causing it to quickly release energy in the form of heat and optical light. If the entering object is massive enough it may violently disintegrate during its fall, creating both light and sound. This particular meteor technically classifies as a bolide, due to its brightness, eruption, and visible fragmentation. Learn more about the various types of meteors here.
No reports of a meteorite impact at ground level have been made although I must assume there will be individuals who go on the hunt—meteorite fragments, especially those associated with witnessed events, can be quite valuable.
Did you witness the event or capture it on camera? Report your sighting of this or any other fireballs on the AMS siteand be sure to send your fireball videos or images to the American Meteor Society here.
The result of sunlight reflected off fine particles of dust aligned along the plane of the Solar System, zodiacal light appears as a diffuse, hazy band of light stretching upwards from the horizon after sunset or before sunrise. Most people have never seen zodiacal light because it’s very dim, and thus an extremely dark sky is required. But thanks to recent dark sky regulations that were passed in the coastal Rhode Island town of Charlestown, this elusive astronomical phenomenon has become visible — to the particular delight of one local observatory.
Frosty Drew Observatory is a small, privately-run observatory featuring a Meade Schmidt Cassegrain LX200 16″ telescope mounted on an alt-azimuth pier inside a dome that stands among the sports fields, parking areas, and nature trails of Ninigret Park and Wildlife Refuge in southern Rhode Island. Being a good distance from urban centers and developed areas, the skies there are some of the darkest in the state. But situated along the eastern seaboard of the United States, even Charlestown’s coast lies beneath a perpetual haze of light pollution.
A new town ordinance, passed in 2012, helped to darken the skies a notch. And while watching comet ISON one evening, astronomer Scott MacNeill became aware of the results.
The following is an excerpt from a Jan. 7 article by Cynthia Drummond of The Westerly Sun, reprinted with permission:
Scott MacNeill was in Ninigret Park, his telescope trained on the comet “Ison,” when he saw something he had never seen before: a celestial phenomenon called “zodiacal light.” After several decades of being obscured by light pollution, the feature was visible again, thanks to the town’s “dark sky” ordinance.
At first, MacNeill, an astronomer and the assistant director of the Frosty Drew observatory, didn’t believe what he was seeing. The cone of light, which he initially thought was light pollution, turned out to be a faint, white glow that astronomers at the observatory hadn’t glimpsed in recent memory.
“To see it in New England, period, is amazing, Zodiacal light is a common marker for the quality of a dark sky location.”
– Scott MacNeill, Astronomer, Frosty Drew Observatory
“I was sitting back for a minute, just looking at the sky, and I said ‘wait a minute. This is the southeast, and to the southeast is the ocean. What is coming up in the southeast?’ And then I noticed the cone. And I’m like ‘no way. That can’t be zodiacal light.’ I’ve heard so many stories about the days of old at Frosty Drew when you used to see zodiacal light here,” he said.
MacNeill credits Charlestown’s dark sky ordinance with reducing light pollution to the point where zodiacal light can be seen again. The ordinance, adopted in October 2012, regulates commercial outdoor lighting in order to improve the town’s dark sky for star-gazers, and to protect residents, wildlife and light-sensitive plants from the effects of light pollution.
One of the provisions of the ordinance requires that new lighting fixtures be designed to focus downward so light does not radiate up into the sky. Lighting installed before the ordinance was passed is exempt from the new regulations.
Building and Zoning Official Joe Warner explained that after the ordinance passed, two major sources of light pollution near the observatory were modified so they would be less polluting.
“At Ninigret Wildlife Refuge, some of the pole lights were changed to dark sky compliant lighting. The Charlestown Ambulance barn also replaced their lights with dark sky compliant lights,” he said.
Charlestown has been recognized as one of the only dark spots on the New England coast — a rare treat for people who enjoy looking at the night sky.
It’s fantastic to see results like this both occurring and being publicized, as dark skies have become quite rare in many populated areas of the world. People who live in or near major metropolitan areas — even in the surrounding sprawling suburbs — often never truly get a dark sky, not such that the dimmer stars, the Milky Way, meteor showers — and yes, the zodiacal light — can be readily seen on an otherwise clear night. The view of a star-filled night sky that has been a part of the human existence for millennia has steadily been doused by the murky glow of artificial lighting. Luckily groups like the International Dark Sky Association are actively trying to change that, but change isn’t always welcome — or quick.
At least, in one Rhode Island town anyway, a small victory has been won for the night.
(HT to Brown University’s Ladd Observatory in Providence for the heads-up on this story.)
It’s a wonderful thing for children to look up to their fathers, but some kids have to look a little further than others — especially when dad is in command of the International Space Station!
Around 6 p.m. EST on February 14, the ISS passed over southern New England, and for a few brief moments the Station was directly above Rhode Island, at 37 miles wide the smallest state in the US. 240 miles up and heading northeast at 17,500 mph, the ISS quickly passed out of sight for anyone watching from the ground, but it was enough time for Heidi and Anthony Ford to get a view of the place where their father Kevin Ford has been living and working since the end of October… and thanks to Brown University’s historic Ladd Observatory and astronomer Robert Horton they got to see the Station up close while talking to their dad on the phone.
“One of the things [Anthony and I] like to do is to pop outside to watch dad fly over, which you can do on occasion when the timing is just right,” Heidi said. “We were looking at the schedule to see when the flyover would be so we could go see him. I remembered that the Ladd was open to the public, so I thought I’d call over there and see if this is something we could visit the Ladd to do.”
Robert Horton, an astronomer with Brown University, was happy to meet Heidi and Anthony at the Ladd for the flyover.
While the Ladd’s main 12″ telescope doesn’t have the ability to track fast-moving objects like the ISS, Horton had some at home that could. So he set one of them up at the observatory and prepared to track the station during its six-minute pass.
Just before the flyby, Heidi’s phone rang — it was her dad calling from the ISS.
“He told her, ‘I’m over Texas. I’ll be there in a few minutes,’” Horton said later in an interview with Brown reporters. “Sure enough the point of light appeared in the sky and we started to track it. They could look through the eyepiece and actually make out the solar panels while they were talking with him.”
The Brown University-run Ladd Observatory holds free public viewing nights every Tuesday, weather permitting. People line up inside the 122-year-old dome to peer through its recently restored 12″ refracting telescope at objects like the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn, and local amateur astronomers set up their own ‘scopes on the observatory’s rooftop deck for additional viewing opportunities.
Heidi had told their dad that they’d be watching from Providence as he passed over, and luckily his schedule allowed him to make a phone call during that particular evening’s pass.
While they had both watched flyovers before, it was the first time either of them had ever seen the ISS through a telescope.
It made for a “very special Valentine’s Day,” Heidi said.
And as for Horton, who had donated the use of his telescope? He got a chance to talk with Commander Ford as well — an experience he’ll likely never forget.
“I can think of a thousand questions to ask him now that I’m not on the phone with him,” Horton said. “But, frankly, I was awestruck at the time.”