Texas Fireball update: the video

By Phil Plait | February 16, 2009 10:39 am

Video of the Texas fireball has turned up on YouTube, and all I have to ask is what took so long?

Watching it again makes it even more clear to me that this was an asteroid fragment a meter or so across (probably less) and not part of the debris cloud from the satellites. It’s simply moving too quickly.

I wonder if we’ll see any more video of it? 20 years ago, shots like this were incredibly rare, but they’re getting more common. Meteors are far easier to see at night — of course, since intrinsically fainter ones are easier to see against a dark background — and so we get them on bank security cameras, parking lot cams, and so on. But during the day it’s a lot tougher, since only the relatively rare very bright fireball gets spotted.

So this may be the only video we get… but I will make you an absolute rock-solid guarantee: as time goes on, we’ll get more video of such events. More and more people have video cameras, and I hear that the next-gen iPhone will have video. In five years half the planet will be walking around with what are essentially scientific tools. With video, plus geolocation provided by real-time GPS in phones, we’ll be able to determine accurate orbits of bolides like this one. I wonder what we’ll learn from that?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Comments (39)

  1. Of course it is a UFO. See all the people in the foreground running away? They know they’re only moments away from death by huge mutant Nazi dinosaurs from space.

  2. Tiffany

    I live in Texas, and after reading all the info you’re dishing out on this, I get frustrated when I turn on the news and they consistently say, “fragments from a satellite collision earlier in the week were seen entering the Earth’s atmosphere…”


    But then again, only a year ago we were reporting UFO sightings. I suppose this is a step up.

  3. Brian Schlosser, Lurker

    I can’t see the video at my current location… Is is more impressive than the Oregon fireball of ’72(i think thats the year)?

    ALso: Ever notice that the number of UFO videos and pictures are inversely proportional to the number of people with high-quality, cheap digital video and still cameras? 😉

  4. Though the embedded video is giving me ‘video no longer available’, the link to YouTube is still good.


  5. Max Fagin

    Whatever yo do, don’t click through to the actual YouTube video. The comments there are . . . well . . . Worthy of the “THE STUPID! IT BURRRNS!” graphic.

  6. RickT

    Brian: Yesterday’s video is cool and better quality than what I’ve seen from 1972, but no comparison at the end of the day — the 1972 fireball was higher up relative to the camera, much longer track, and much much more of a “that was nearly a very bad day…” effect when you go back to watch it.


  7. Does that make the next-gen iPhone almost equivalent to a tricorder? 😛

  8. Speaking of fireballs, here’s an article that appeared in today’s Washington Post about one that appeared over Europe last year. Some astronomers now think that was part of a comet that broke up in 1920.

    And yes, I still read newspapers.


    Dr. Phil Plait:

    More and more people have video cameras, and I hear that the next-gen iPhone will have video. In five years half the planet will be walking around with what are essentially scientific tools. With video, plus geolocation provided by real-time GPS in phones, we’ll be able to determine accurate orbits of bolides like this one. I wonder what we’ll learn from that?

    I wonder when will the critics of space exploration — “Wot about teh starvin’ people in teh world?” — realize that all these wonderful techno-toys are the result of space exploration technology?

  10. @Larian: I’ll bet you can get an app for the current one to make it sound like it’s a tri-corder.

    I’ve never seen so many apps that are so useless 😛

  11. Ryan

    If you want video on your iPhone just jailbreak it. It isn’t hard to do now.

  12. If your workplace bans youtube (like mine) then you could try here


    Its the BBC news site so it might pass the filters (works for me)


  13. BP

    US STRATCOM said this morning, officially, it was a meteor and not from a satellite. End of debate.

  14. @Drksky, I had that sound on one of my old palm type devices back in the day. Yes, I am a GEEK!

    Ryan, I guess I need an iPhone first to hack it. 😉

    Wonder what took STRATCOM so long. Since they already had a bead on most of the stuff that’s in orbit, it should have been easy for them to do a process of elimination. Although they may have been busy labeling the many new pieces of junk to track.

  15. RE the AP story:

    chief of Russia’s Mission Control says clouds of debris from the collision will circle Earth for thousands of years

    Thousands? How high were these satelites? Dr. Plait, I am sceptical of the Russian’s statement, care to elaborate?

  16. darter22

    Video of an actual opportunity at Death From the Skies. I love it.

  17. Aaaaagh, be sure to check out the related videos, inculding the one from the local FOX affiliate, maintaining that network’s high journalistic standards.

    Is there any confirmation that the things they attribute to the FAA (including the “Notice to Airmen” warning of falling debris over north Texas) actually were said and done by the FAA?

    I keep getting distracted by that street light shining in full daylight. Well, this is Texas…with oil to burn, just leave the lights on 24/7.

  18. jpt

    Soon it seems that EVERYTHING of note will be filmed by someone.
    I’m not sure I like that.

  19. alfaniner

    I can only assume that the videographer only happened to catch it by accident. Otherwise I can’t believe that the video cuts just before what could have been a MASSIVE EXPLOSION due to the landing. Or not…

  20. Cheyenne

    I think one thing that we can take from it is that it’s really remarkable we don’t have a better international monitoring program in place to look out for these kinds of things. We’re going to get the smack again at some point down the line – I don’t want us to go all dino and do the whole “species extinct event” thing.

  21. TS

    On BBC Breakfast this morning they showed this video, after this host (a journalist) said that supposedly it had nothing to do with the satellite smash the other day. He then added “If this is not satellite debris, then I don’t know what it is”.
    I felt like calling in and telling him: “If you don’t know then investigate, isn’t that what journalists do? You… you… cretin!!!!!
    But I had to leave for work…

  22. Greg in Austin

    I didn’t see the fireball because I was busy running the marathon! :)

    The location of the video from News8 austin (news8austin.com/content/top_stories/default.asp?ArID=232162) is on San Jacinto St, just south of Duval, right about mile 24 of the marathon. The view is looking to the NNE. I cannot find any report that says what time the event occurred, but if I knew the time it happened, I could say almost exactly where I was.


  23. Radwaste

    Well, a sad reminder: we have all sorts of video of the shuttle Columbia burning. If you go to the bookstore, you can get the report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, including a CD with the several video and one Apache IR camera footage. This will show you what re-entry debris looks like and how it acts.

    You might also consider re-entry aspects such as entry angle. Something coming right down on you isn’t going to be so obvious; shallow tracks give to time to see them. Then there’s the size thing Phil has mentioned before – to hit hard, a thing has to be big.

    Story time:
    When I was stationed in Idaho Falls in the Navy – they have reactors out there – my roommate and I would go motorcycling in the awesome mountains of Targhee National Forest. Having scouted a bunch of the trails out there on a “poker run” put on by the local bike shops, we decided on a long break that we’d take the dirt bikes out there at night. This insanely stupid idea, only slightly less suicidal than solo riding up there, was cut short on our arrival by the realization that most of the trails were really impassable by bike headlight. As we sat by the side of the Snake River and I was looking at my buddy, figuring what to do next, my shadow suddenly appeared on him, outlined in light green.
    Spinning around to see where he was looking, I saw a sinusoidal track in the sky aimed about 20 degrees to one side of us, with a coal dropping off the near end of it. Whatever it was had “skipped” a little, having visibly inclined less than its initial track. Unfortunately, I haven’t remembered where it was relative to the stars and so its direction of approach and bearing are lost, other than “west”. This was in the summer of 1980.

  24. MadScientist

    While I won’t believe the “satellite debris” story unless someone can produce the satellite debris, I’m still wondering how BA estimates the speed of this thing.

  25. MadScientist


    Let’s say that we did know a big rock (or big mostly iron slug) was headed our way. How would you stop it or even deflect it so that it misses the earth? I wonder if anyone has done the calculations to plot speed vs intercept distance and force needed just to clear the earth.

    If the movement were known well enough then people can guess where it will hit and when, but let’s say it’s a big city (New York seems to be the favorite in Hollywood movies) – can you imagine trying to evacuate such a huge population?

    Although there are people watching rocks in space, I doubt there is much that can be done except to watch and enjoy the show.

  26. Another thing about an iPhone video is that the tilt sensors should allow an app to be written which records the angle at which the images were recorded and the direction the lens was pointing in addition to the lat/long. Just getting a couple of such app’d iPhones to record an event and send the information to a central location, the track of the bolide could be calculated much more accurately than with eye-witness accounts, and maybe any meteorites from the fall could be located. What a boon to sample collecting that would be!

  27. Chip

    I like how the runners seem to be “running away” from another of those “invading alien spacecraft” as it lands in the far distance. (Reminiscent of a 1950’s or 60’s US or Japanese monster movie.) 😉

  28. Mark

    CNN ran the most disgusting, irresponsible story on this last night on Anderson Cooper 360. They put in one throw away line about this possibly being a meteor and spent the rest of the time speculating on this being a “UFO”. They even talked about how some people believe that the government is conspiring to cover up the fact that “we are being watched”. What a load of…

  29. Mark

    To follow up on that last comment, here’s the e-mail I just submitted to CNN:

    “The story you ran on last night’s show (2/16/09) on the Texas meteor was one the most irresponsible and misleading news stories I have seen in recent times. You gave short Shrift to the most plausible explanation of the fireball (it was a meteor!) and then spent most of the story on wild speculation that this was a “UFO”. Giving credence to the UFO conspiracy theorists is doing a great disservice to your viewers and the general public. I am very disappointed. The real universe is awe inspiring all on its own and a relatively huge meteor bright enough to be seen in daylight is a great story on its own. Your need to throw irrelevant speculation into this story reflects your lack of skill and creativity in presenting a compelling story based in reality.”

  30. alfaniner

    It’s sweeps month. All bets are off, for ratings.

  31. @MadScientist “Let’s say that we did know a big rock (or big mostly iron slug) was headed our way. How would you stop it or even deflect it so that it misses the earth? I wonder if anyone has done the calculations to plot speed vs intercept distance and force needed just to clear the earth.”

    If you have enough lead time (i.e., you know the asteroid or comet is heading for an impact with the earth years ahead of time) you can try what is called a gravitational tractor. You park a massive spacecraft just out in front of the object to increase its speed or just behind it to slow it down. Acting over many years the spacecraft will have just enough cumulative delta-v on the object to make it miss the earth. I’m not sure how massive the spacecraft has to be but I’m guessing 10,000 kg and up would be required. Not sure if we have ever launched that size of a payload escaping the earth’s gravitational field or not.

  32. Lin

    I saw the fireball. It happened just a few minutes before noon on Sunday, I saw it in ALLEN TX. just north of Dallas. I was in my car going south, driving slowly, on a residential street.. The weather was very good and the sky was a very clear blue with no clouds. It was far more spectacular than that video. It appeared to just plunge thru the atmosphere from east toward the west. it was very large. It looked bigger than a pickup truck to me. The ball had flames all around it. There was a very long tail behind it and the tail was almost as wide as the ball and the trail was a very white and as as bright as this white computer page. After it streaked across the sky, it appeared to just drop toward the earth very fast. In my untrained eye, it looked like it fell just a few miles away but since it fell farther south in Texas it must have been really big at the time I saw it. I heard no sonic boom but I was in the car with the windows up. It was very spectacular

  33. I must say I truly despise that highlighted elliptical halo they’re using to highlight the meteor. Was that the Austin TV station that did that or someone at YouTube? We know where the friggin’ meteor is already. We don’t need your help to point out where it is.

    A couple of points. No witnesses are reporting any green coloration to it the best I’ve been able to determine. I’m not sure that would be due to excitation of oxygen in the atmosphere or the composition of the meteor itself. Some folks were reporting sounds which is a bit unusual for bolides. I suppose that means it must have been fairly low in the atmosphere for the sound waves to travel all the way to the ground. Haven’t heard any triangulation estimates of its altitude. Has anyone else?

  34. Lin

    When I saw the fire ball , it appeared shinny and silver like, and the actual flames were very distinct.
    I saw nothing that looked like green coloration. The trail was very white.

  35. @Lin “I saw nothing that looked like green coloration. The trail was very white.”

    Yeah, also in the video it looks pretty much white although some folks did report an orange color to it at some point. There are a lot of bolides reported with a green color including the Peekskill fireball of the early 1990’s. I’ve seen one myself which was intensely green. I’ve always wondered why some bolides are green and others are white. There are basically two theories: 1.) the green bolides are travelling at just the right altitude for the atomic oxygen line at 577 nanometers to get excited and re-emit light, 2.) the composition of the meteor determines it, green bolides are caused by a lot of iron and nickel in the meteor itself which gets heated up, the electrons get excited and re-emit energy in the green part of the spectrum. Not sure which theory is more likely. Maybe #2 but I don’t really know.

  36. YouRang

    Was I dreaming? I saw a video on TV which showed a grass fire allegedly started by the meteor.


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