Get The Lowdown On Fireballs; PANSTARRS First Impressions

The big daylight fireball of April 22, 2012 that dropped meteorites over the Sutter’s Mill area in California. Credit: Lisa Warren

NASA launched a new website this month to share information gathered by U.S. military sensors on super-sized meteors like the recent blast over Chelyabinsk, Russia. Called Fireball and Bolide Reports, it’s handled through NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program and features a table of particulars about significant new falls.

A massive fireball explodes near the Ural Mts. in Russia on Feb. 15, 2013. Its total impact energy was equal to about 440,000 tons of TNT.

What better way to start the new service than with the large fireball event in Russia. Basic information about location, speed and total energy are shown. Since fireballs occur far more often than asteroid impacts, the service will give scientists and the public a handle on the frequency and size of these events. It’s just one more way to ensure no one’s in the dark even when it comes to the small stuff.

Military DSP satellites use an infrared sensor to detect heat from missile and booster plumes against the earth’s background. They also routinely detect entering meteoroids which become fireballs when they encounter Earth’s atmosphere. Credit: Air Force Space Command

The U.S. Air Force Space Command gathers optical and infrared sensor data from military DSP (Defence Support Program) satellites. While the purpose of DSP satellites is to monitor nuclear explosions and rocket launches, their sensors also detect something like 15-25 explosions every year in the upper atmosphere from incoming fireballs.

A fireball from the Taurid meteor shower from October 28, 2005 over Toyama, Japan. Credit: Hiroyuki Iida

When a significant fireball is detected, Space Command moves the data along to the NASA which then publishes it on the new site. To date there’s only one entry plus a webpage with additional details about the Russian monster fireball.

Comet PANSTARRS Update:

Hey man, I can relate. Finally saw a very anemic Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS last night through clouds north of Duluth, Minn. I stood like a sentry with 10×50 binoculars and dared not look away until the comet popped into view exactly a half hour after sunset.

Conditions for William Wiethoff of Port Wing, Wis. were nearly identical to those I experienced last night. He managed to get a frame or two of the crescent moon and Comet PANSTARRS before clouds swallowed everything. Credit: William Wiethoff

Thick streaks of gray cirrus clouds eventually won the battle but not before the golden-hued head of PANSTARRS magically materialized for about 20 seconds. I caught it one more time for another 10 seconds and that was that. Long enough to appreciate the “fuzzy star” appearance of the head and start of a tail.

Seeing a highly-anticipated object like PANSTARRS for the first time drains the anxiety and oils the machine. Next time I can take it easy. After all, how much adrenaline can one human muster? My journey to see the comet took me to a place that will make an ideal setting for photography. Check that off my list of concerns. And having seen it once, I can also better anticipate where to look and what to expect.

By the way, I’ll have a new round of comet maps soon.

12 Responses

  1. Lynn

    Hi Bob,
    Well done on seeing Panstarrs, i’ve been waiting in anticipation for you saying you had finally seen it after you listening to everyone else’s story on finding it, and the wait has finally paid off 🙂
    That is also a great website that’s been made and is great that you know that nothing gets hidden from you, but I have been trying to remember where that great fireball was seen and filmed, as I seen it on the BBC news at the time, but it was years ago and I can’t remember where it was, I was thinking it was maybe Pakistan or India but i’m not sure, so hoping maybe you can remember. Thanks 🙂

  2. Glad you had some time with the comet last night.. It was a challenging object to find, but the moon did help. I just snapped away using the 50mm lens until it had made its way on my sensor. Hopefully, as the weeks pass, it will keep at least some of its luster.

    1. astrobob

      I did the same – shot pictures not even knowing if and when the comet would show. I did get one or two with a comet “smudge”.

  3. Tim Hutton

    Hello Bob,
    Glad you finally saw it. I’ve been viewing it since Sat. the 9th, with the exception of Mon. due to clouds. I got some great photos on the 12th with the Moon. Made a cool time lapse of them both setting. So cool that my local Eyewitness News Albuquergue station aired it. The morning of the 13th they used it as the teaser before the commercial break and then aired it for on the 5am broadcast and then again on the 6am broadcast (no teaser @ 6). Just as I was coming down from the high of having my work shown all morning I get another email stating the Chief Meteorologist was going to use a separate still photo I sent in on his weather segment @ 6pm. What a fantastic day it was. I’ve been taking photos every night, trying to improve with each night. I’m having a great time with C/2011 L4, and it’s not over yet. Every night the sky is clear I’ll be watching.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Tim,
      You’ve been having a blast. There are many who would run to New Mexico for a clear sky if they could. Congratulations on getting your material on the air. No doubt it inspired others to go out for a look. That’s what outreach is all about.

      1. Tim Hutton

        Speaking about outreach, on the night of the 12th I took some neighbors to my spot and before we knew it other people from the neighborhood we didn’t even know showed up. It was fun and exciting for all. I love how Astronomy brings people together.

  4. Edward M. Boll

    I am still waiting for my first glimpse of it. These clouds have been relentless. Wednesday night, the Moon at 20 degrees was clearly visible. The comet was about 10 degrees up, just a couple degrees below the top of the clouds.

    1. astrobob

      And I’m still waiting with you for my first good look. The view on the 13th was much compromised by clouds and very brief to boot. Let’s hope they finally GET OUTTA HERE soon!

      1. Edward M. Boll

        They will not be gone tonight. If I get a chance to look tomorrow, I better because more snow coming in on Sunday and Monday.

  5. Jan delvaux

    Dear bob

    Well, I’ve been to the same place again, bright open sky, freezing cold. The moon was there, nice and shiny, but no comet to see. Next week there will be clouds and rain, so no more viewing opportunities over here in belgium. Probably to much light polution.

    1. astrobob

      That’s too bad. Were you using binoculars? Because of twilight, binoculars are essential for seeing PANSTARRS. How low can you see in the western sky? You’ve got to have clearing to about 1 fist above the horizon to catch it.

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