We are currently living under very volatile skies. Less than one year after a 10,000 ton meteorite exploded above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in the Urals injuring 950 people, Russian scientists reveal that a nearby area of the country narrowly missed an impact from a 15 meter asteroid which skimmed past Earth last weekend. The asteroid, which was moving at 16km per second, passed within 11,300km of the Earth’s surface, an altitude which is below the orbit of geostationary satellites. It was discovered during its near miss by the Master Tunka station near Lake Baikal. The asteroid was not previously known.
Russian scientists are also considering the possibility that the object was a piece of space debris, or even part of an unmanned Mars explorer, though there has not been any further evidence to corroborate this theory. Vladimir Lipunov of the Moscow State University and the Sternberg Astronomical Institute have notified the International Astronomical Union of their discovery, but it has yet to be confirmed.
We reported recently that meteor activity appeared to be on the increase, but that it was perhaps due to the fact that the American Meteor Society had installed a reporting system on their website which makes it easier for them to be reported by members of the public. Certainly the American Meteor Society received over 1700 reports after several fireballs shook the Mid-West over the past two weeks.
A large meteor was captured by a NASA all-sky camera at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, seen over Middle Tennessee and Alabama earlier this month at 8:18 PM Central Time on Sept. 9, 2013 – this was followed by another fireball over Atlanta on September 22nd. It doesn’t stop there: a major event was reported by over 730 people in the skies over Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and Wisconsin on September 26th; it was rumored that this object was seen as far away as Alberta, Canada. Observers spoke of a bright blue or turquoise object with an orange vapour trail streaking across the sky for several seconds; some eye-witnesses smelled burning, heard a sonic boom and felt their houses shake from the blast. The AMS received over 800 reports regarding yet another fireball which was seen over Ohio on September 27th at around 11:30 PM local time, with further sightings on the same evening from Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
In total, the AMS site has received details of over 2150 events so far this year, already exceeding last year’s total, and over 500 up on 2011. Of course this could be due to the fact that greater public awareness of the phenomena is encouraging more witnesses to record their sightings, but one cannot deny that there has been major activity in the heavens of late.
The sightings have not just been restricted to the US and Russia: Italian news sites have just published details of a huge bolide over Italy, lasting for several seconds, and visible in many regions of the country including Rome, Pescara, Bari, Taranto, Lecce, Rimini, Bologna and Florence.
So what is causing this hail of meteors to rain down upon us? Well, there has been some speculation that Comet ISON is arriving with a posse of other objects which could be veering off into our atmosphere ; to date, however, no convincing evidence has been produced to substantiate this, and with the comet still fairly remote, it will be a while before more definitive proof of this can be determined. ISON poses no threat to Earth and there is no indication that it will impact with either us or any other planet on its travels. Keep your eyes on the skies in 2014, however, as things could get become even more interesting: it is predicted Comet Siding Spring has a 1 in 600 chance of smashing into the Red Planet, Mars, and the impact, which would rival the one thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs on our own planet, should produce quite a show in the heavens which could be seen with the naked eye from Earth.
So, the future looks bright ahead, it seems, to be lit by yet more major comets, meteors and fireballs. Let us not forget that the annual Orionid meteor shower begins on the night of Wednesday, October 2; this will peak on October 21 and end on November 7th, and will be most visible before the moon is at its brightest.