Unique UK meteor proves what goes around comes around


Video of the September 21, 2012 UK fireball. At closest, the meteor was only 33 miles above the Earth’s surface.
On the evening of September 21 a spectacular fireball as bright as the full moon blazed over the British Isles fracturing into dozens of fragments. Traveling at 8 miles per second – barely enough to escape Earth’s gravity – the meteor took an estimated 3 minutes to cross the sky as it sizzled westward over the Atlantic. Because it lingered so long, some observers thought it might be the breakup of a satellite, but the great majority of satellites travel the opposite direction – from west to east – making a chunk of slow-moving space debris the better possibility. Most meteors strike the atmosphere between 11 and 72 miles per second.

A similar Earth-grazing meteoroid / fireball streaked over Wyoming on August 10, 1972 that came as close as 35 miles before skipping back into space. See video below. Credit and copyright: Antarctic Search for Meteorites program, Case Western Reserve University, James M. Baker

155 minutes later another fireball tore across eastern U.S. and Canadian skies before incinerating itself. Were these two sightings connected? Esko Lyytinen, mathematician and member of the Finnish Fireball Working Group of the Ursa Astronomical Associationmodeled the meteor’s flight and determined that its slow speed may have allowed it to be captured by Earth’s gravity.

After its British debut, the object orbited once around the Earth and flared to life again over Canada before finally breaking to bits. It’s unknown if pieces survived to land as meteorites. The original meteoroid, the name given a space rock before it enters our atmosphere, is estimated to have weighed from several to tens of tons. Most of it would have burned up miles high, turned to dust and vapor by the heat and stress of entry.


Footage of the Great Daylight Fireball of 1972
While pieces of the meteor did burn up over the North Atlantic, Lyytinen believes a surviving fragment skipped back into space to become a temporary satellite of Earth. Slowed to 5.7 miles per second by its atmospheric encounter, the meteoroid’s fate was sealed – it wasn’t going anywhere but down. After one orbit, it flared a final farewell in a fiery trail over Canada.

Frame grab of the Sept. 21 UK fireball. Click to see video. Credit: CCTV / Youtube

Lyttinen cautions that more study needs to be done to confirm his hypothesis. If proven true, this would be the first time a meteoroid has been observed to graze in and out of Earth’s atmosphere, becoming a temporary natural satellite in the process. For a brief few hours our planet had not one but two moons!

I wish to thank Dirk Ross and his excellent Latest Worldwide Meteor / Meteorite News website for background on the fall. Check out his site as well as science writer Kelly Beatty’s .informative article. Stay tuned for an update.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

11 thoughts on “Unique UK meteor proves what goes around comes around

  1. Hi bob long time no talk!!! I just have a quick question I read on my Facebook about a asteroid flying by earth real close tomorrow and the source was pretty accurate.. do u know anything about it?? And should we worry they said they just found it yesterday… thanks bob I always turn to you !!!! I hope all is well :-) :-) :-)

  2. I don’t know it is posted on elenin fb, and I had to Google chrome it to get it translated lol it said it was like 250 / 300 m and it will belike 250.000 km in lunar orbit and it was in the NEOCP page or something …. it suppose to pass tomorrow pls let me know if u find something pls:-)

    • I still don’t have much on this, but if it will pass a lunar distance from Earth, it’s nothing to worry about. It’s a very small asteroid judging by recent NEOCP data.

    • Milayla,
      OK, it’s temporary designation is TCT501 and expected to pass some 256,500 miles from Earth, but inside the orbit of the moon. That would mean it would pass more than lunar distance from Earth on the far side of the moon’s orbit. It’s diameter is estimated at 75-150 feet – very small. Again, no worries.

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