Super Bright Fireball Spotted Across U.S. Northeast

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.

See more videos of this event from local news stations WMTW and WGME (Maine) and WMUR (New Hampshire) and from the Ogunquit police department on Twitter.

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.

Full-frame image of the May 17, 2016 fireball from Portsmouth, NH (www.portsmouthwebcam.com)
Full-frame image of the May 17, 2016 meteor from Portsmouth, NH (portsmouthwebcam.com)

Did you witness the event or capture it on camera? Report your sighting of this or any other fireballs on the AMS site and be sure to send your fireball videos or images to the American Meteor Society here.

Source: American Meteor Society

Added May 18: here’s a beautiful video of the same bolide captured from Saint-Jacques-le-Mineur, Québec by Dany Bilodeau (ht to Massimo on Twitter)

Watch the Aurora Shimmer and Dance in Real Time

I for one have never witnessed the northern lights in person, and like many people I experience them vicariously through the photography and videos of more well-traveled (or more polar-bound) individuals. Typically these are either single-shot photos or time-lapses made up of many somewhat long-exposure images. As beautiful as these are, they don’t accurately capture the true motion of this upper atmospheric phenomenon. But here we get a look at the aurora as it looks in real time, captured on camera by Jon Kerr from northern Finland. Check it out above or watch in full screen HD on YouTube.

The video was shot with a full-frame mirrorless Sony a7S. See more of Jon’s aurora videos on YouTube here.

Video credit: Jon Kerr. HT SunViewer on Twitter.

The Big Dipper Like You’ve Never Seen It Before!

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All right, it may look just like any other picture you’ve ever seen of the Big Dipper. Maybe even a little less impressive, in fact. But, unlike any other picture, this one was taken from 290 million km away by NASA’s Juno spacecraft en route to Jupiter, part of a test of its Junocam instrument!  Now that’s something new concerning a very old lineup of stars!

“I can recall as a kid making an imaginary line from the two stars that make up the right side of the Big Dipper’s bowl and extending it upward to find the North Star,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of NASA’s Juno mission. “Now, the Big Dipper is helping me make sure the camera aboard Juno is ready to do its job.”

Diagram of the Juno spacecraft (NASA/JPL)

The image is a section of a larger series of scans acquired by Junocam between 20:23 and 20:56 UTC (3:13 to 3:16 PM EST) on March 14, 2012. Still nowhere near Jupiter, the purpose of the imaging exercise was to make sure that Junocam doesn’t create any electromagnetic interference that could disrupt Juno’s other science instruments.

In addition, it allowed the Junocam team at Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, CA to test the instrument’s Time-Delay Integration (TDI) mode, which allows image stabilization while the spacecraft is in motion.

Because Juno is rotating at about 1 RPM, TDI is crucial to obtaining focused images. The images that make up the full-size series of scans were taken with an exposure time of 0.5 seconds, and yet the stars (brightened above by the imaging team) are still reasonably sharp… which is exactly what the Junocam team was hoping for.

“An amateur astrophotographer wouldn’t be very impressed by these images, but they show that Junocam is correctly aligned and working just as we expected”, said Mike Caplinger, Junocam systems engineer.

As well as the Big Dipper, Junocam also captured other stars and asterisms, such as Vega, Canopus, Regulus and the “False Cross”. (Portions of the imaging swaths were also washed out by sunlight but this was anticipated by the team.)

These images will be used to further calibrate Junocam for operation in the low-light environment around Jupiter, once Juno arrives in July 2016.

Read more about the Junocam test on the MSSS news page here.

As of May 10, Juno was approximately 251 million miles (404 million kilometers) from Earth. Juno has now traveled 380 million miles (612 million kilometers) since its launch on August 5, 2011 and is currently traveling at a velocity of 38,300 miles (61,600 kilometers) per hour relative to the Sun.

Watch a video of the Juno launch here, taken by yours truly from the press site at Kennedy Space Center!

A Weekend Sky Show: Moon, Venus and Jupiter

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As promised by Nancy in a previous article on Universe Today, Venus was visible during the daylight hours this Saturday, very close to the crescent Moon. If you had clear weather you may have been able to catch a glimpse of the scene above, photographed from my location in north Texas at 6:35 p.m. local time.

Dim but visible, Venus is the “star” at lower left.

Later that same evening the show really went into full force as the Moon was illuminated by Earthshine in the western sky, with Venus ablaze and Jupiter making a bright appearance as well!

Nancy wrote on Feb. 24: If you don’t see Venus during the day, try to see Venus immediately at sunset; and right now, the Moon, Venus and Jupiter are lining up for triple conjunction at dusk, and with clear skies, it will be a great view that is almost impossible to miss!

A great view indeed! I grabbed a quick shot with my iPhone camera of the conjunction, and took the opportunity to point out the view to some neighbors as well.

Conjunction of the Moon, Venus and Jupiter on Feb. 25, 2012. (Jason Major)

One of the more dramatic planetary conjunctions I’ve seen, especially with the light from a fading sunset illuminating the stage.

Sometimes the best astronomy is the type you can see with your own eyes… and be able to easily share with others!

ADDED 2/26: Sunday evening brought some great views as well! Here’s a photo from around 6:45 pm on Feb. 26th:

Jupiter, the Moon and Venus on Feb. 26, 2012. © Jason Major

 

Coming Soon – Night Shining Noctilucent Clouds

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Soon you may see an eerie spectacle on clear summer nights if you are located at latitudes between 50° and 70° north and south of the equator: Noctilucent Clouds.

These ghostly apparitions are a delight to see and are quite rare. It is incredibly difficult to predict exactly when they will appear, but we do know they should begin to appear soon.

The season for Noctilucent Clouds (Noctilucent = Latin for “Night Shining”) starts early June and continues into late July. They are seen just after dusk, or before dawn and an apparition can last around an hour.

These mysterious clouds, with their bizarre tenuous wispy shapes reminiscent of ripples in sand or the changing surface of a pool of water, spread like a glowing web across the northern sky. Colours can range from brilliant whites, with tinges of blue, pink and orange.

Formed by tiny ice crystals, they are the highest clouds in the Earth’s atmosphere, located in the mesosphere at altitudes of around 76 to 85 kilometers (47 to 53 miles) almost at the edge of space.

They are normally too faint to be seen, and are visible only when illuminated by sunlight from below the horizon, while the lower layers of the atmosphere are in the Earth’s shadow. Noctilucent clouds are not fully understood and are a recently discovered meteorological phenomenon, only being recorded for about 120 years.

Noctilucent clouds can only form under very restrictive conditions, and their occurrence can be used as a guide to changes in the upper atmosphere. Since their relatively recent classification, the occurrence of noctilucent clouds appears to be increasing in frequency, brightness and extent.

There is evidence that the relatively recent appearance of noctilucent clouds and their gradual increase, may be linked to climate change. Another recent theory is that some of these bright displays come from particulates and water vapour in the atmosphere left over from Space Shuttle launches.

How can you see them? Over the next couple of months look north during dusk and dawn and try and spot this mysterious and elusive phenomenon. They are best seen when the sun is between 6 and 16 degrees below the horizon, and seem to occur more frequently in the Northern hemisphere than the Southern.

Good luck!

Noctilucent clouds over Blair, Nebraska, USA. Credit: Mike Hollingshead

What Color is the Sky

Space Travel

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If you are a parent or are old enough to babysit younger relatives there is one question children ask that stumps most adults. It’s what color is the sky or why is the sky blue. This article will tell you why and do it in as simple a way as possible so that the next time a kids ask the question you have a good answer.

To understand why the sky is blue you need to remember how color works. Color is largely caused by how well an object absorbs the light spectrum. When you see a blue sky you only see blue because all the other colors were absorbed in the air. Any object with color works that way. For example a red ball is read because all the colors of light are absorbed by the ball except for red. This reflected light is what gives the object color.

This is what happens with the sky. The atmosphere is denser than we imagine and the different gases give the atmosphere unique properties in how it absorbs, diffuses, and reflects light. When sunlight passes through our atmosphere a portion of it is scattered and absorbed. The remainder either reaches the surface or is reflected back. The portion that makes it to us observers is 75 percent.

This process is called diffused sky radiation. So to review, we color because objects due to texture of dyes and surfaces absorb all light wavelengths and reflect back one or more. The reason we see the sky as blue is because the molecules in the air scatter the light absorbing most wavelengths of light except for blue.

In addition to this the sky is gray and overcast because of the water droplets in the atmosphere in the forms of clouds and humidity. water refracts light equally unlike air molecules in the atmosphere. This means we get the entirety of white light only it is dimmer just like when you shine a light through a white sheet.

The fact we see a blue sky is good thing because its shows that are atmosphere is at work shielding us from the full energy of the sun’s rays. While the sun is the largest source of energy to our planet, a lot of its high energy radiation that is deadly for living things. Our atmosphere plays it part by shielding us from that. So when you see a blue sky with your kid you can tell them it means the sky is acting like a huge shade blocking out the bad parts of the sun.

We have written many articles about the earth’s sky for Universe Today. Here’s an article about why the sky is blue, and here’s an article about how to find Venus in the sky.

If you’d like more info on the earth’s sky, check out an article about Strange Clouds. And here’s a link to NASA Space Place Article on Blue Sky.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Sky Survey. Listen here, Episode 118: Sky Surveys.