Tremendous fireball over the Netherlands

By Phil Plait | October 16, 2009 10:00 am

A couple of days ago, the Netherlands and Germany were treated to a spectacular fireball, a very bright meteor burning up over their skies. Photographer Robert Mikaelyan was at the right place at the right time and got tremendous photos of the bolide:


Wow! Click through to see the series; you can see the meteoroid breaking up as it slams through our air. Robert took beautiful shots, especially given that he couldn’t have had more than a few seconds to get them; things like this appear very suddenly and are gone in less than a minute at best. The event took place around 19:00 local time and was probably witnessed by thousands of people. I’m totally jealous.

Also in the meteor news category, apparently scientists have verified that a piece of metal that fell through a UK man’s roof in July is in fact space debris of some kind — meaning from a man-made object, not a natural meteorite. The Daily Mail (I know, barf) has the story and a picture of the object. Interestingly, the man claims the object was too hot to touch when it hit his house. In general, meteorites from deep space are not hot, but this is a bit different; it would have fallen from a decaying orbit, meaning a slower speed and a shallower angle as it came in at the top of the atmosphere. I’m not exactly sure why that would mean it would stay hot, but I’ll note it wasn’t hot enough to start a fire. I’ll have to look into this further.

Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to IVAN3MAN. Image from Robert Mikaelyan used with permission.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (31)

  1. DrFlimmer

    Yes, but my window faces south – so I just heard from it in the news! Too bad!!! :(

  2. Dean

    Could it be that if it’s metal, it has a higher thermal conductivity than rock, and as such would feel hot, even if it wasn’t? (sorta like why you can walk across hot coals).

  3. Wow, what a lucky guy. At the right place, at the right time and having a camera with him. If I had seen this, I’m not sure if I would have taken pictures, I probably would only have gazed at it.

  4. Clearly it is an alien craft breaking up in our atmosphere after the alien used its ship to deflect a meteor heading our way. Poor altruistic alien. Luckily, a well-prepared individual caught proof of alien life on film, and it is remarkably clear. Who can deny this evidence?

    On a more serious note, that is friggin’ beautiful! It would have been great to see as it happened. I’ve only ever seen the tiny little <1 sec. streaks that are more common.

  5. Man, IVAN3MAN is all over your blog. Fun stuff.

    So that piece of metal, any chance we’re getting bits of that Chinese anti-satelite test down, or is this from that collision? Or maybe an entirelly new bit o junk? Any way to tell?

  6. Merijn Vogel

    I was outside, cycling home, I must have been facing approximately the right direction, however, I somehow missed it. Very very cool indeed, and judging from the many reports it is clear people cannot guess distances :-). Many people reported it not being higher up than 50m, but for them it must’ve been just very far away and therefore low on the horizon. Many people were calling airtraffic-control or the police inquiring whether a plane had crashed…

    Pity I missed it; I guess I must’ve been cycling along bushes blocking my view or just plain facing the wrong direction. Great pictures this guy made, create to live in a time where someone somewhere will always have a digital camera ready to shoot!

  7. MHS

    I was sitting in my living room watching TV when this thing flew past my window (apparently ofcourse :)). My first reaction was ‘hey! a meteor!’, but then it got so bright and colorful that I assumed it had to be fireworks. Later I found out it was indeed a meteor. Cool stuff!!

    It was in fact a lot lighter outside than the picture suggests. The sun had just set about 10 minutes earlier.

  8. Charles Boyer

    For the first time in my life, this summer I saw a meteorite with a tail of smoke moving across the sky. I thought it beautiful, and something to remember — you don’t see that kind of thing every day.

    We were camping that weekend and the couple that was with us asked me if was a UFO.

    I laughed a little. That NEVER had crossed my mind.

  9. Yojimbo

    Yes, you say “pretty pictures” now. But when the tripods begin to march….

  10. Kees

    As a downside, he mistakes astronomers and astrologers on his website. To bad I was on the wrong side of the country to see this (and indoors)

  11. Trebuchet

    Sad to say, but I can no longer look at meteoroid pictures like this without thinking of the very similar ones of the shuttle Columbia breaking up.

  12. Very cool shots. There’s a network of amateur-run allsky cameras trying to gather more information about these events:

    When they get multiple camera views, they can be much more precise in calculating trajectories. This network is over the US, though I understand there’s another in Europe. Hopefully, more will go active soon.

  13. Heidi

    Great, now that’s all I’m going to think of, as well.

  14. SkepTTic

    Fantastic series of shots

  15. Slowly But Surly

    The BA says “…meteorites from deep space are not hot”

    Why’s that? Is it because they just tumble the last few thousand feet and are cooled? Would a bigger rock be hotter than a smaller one?

    Inquiring minds want to know!

  16. Ryan

    The probable reason the metal object was hot to the touch is because it spent more time in a heating regime. As you said, it came in at a shallower angle and slower speed than a meteor. While the slower speed means it would have experienced a lower heating rate, it would have spent longer in that heating regime because of it’s shallower decent. In general, shallower reentry angles tend to result in a higher temperature on the ground. I believe the example noted in my first astronautics class was the example of a ICBM reentering vs a manned capsule. The ICBM comes in fast and sharply, and undergoes higher max g’s, higher heating rates, and a lower final temperature, while the capsule has lower max g’s, lower heating rates, but a higher final temperature, because its lower deceleration means it spends more time being heated.

  17. Vera

    I am so bummed out that I missed this! Was in the train on my way to a Pixies concert…so luckily I did experience sth very exciting and rare that evening after all ūüėČ

  18. Buzz Parsec

    Meteorites are usually very cold when they hit the ground because they were very cold in space. They only spend a few seconds traversing the upper atmosphere and getting heated. The outside becomes extremely hot but the core remains icy cold. Many meteors are rocky, which is is a very poor conductor of heat, and only a very thin outer layer gets hot. Then after it slows to terminal velocity (usually about 100 miles an hour, depending on its size and density) in the upper atmosphere, it takes several minutes to fall the final 30-50 miles, all the while cooling off. The surface heat radiates away, is conducted to the very cold air at that altitude, and (mostly) is absorbed by the very cold core of the meteorite. So by the time it hits the ground, it is basically at core temperature, well below zero.

    Many meteorites are iron or a mix of iron and rock. Since iron is a much better conductor of heat, the surface layer that heats up should be much thicker. On the other hand, the cold core should function more effectively as a heat sink, so it shouldn’t get as hot. So the net effect may be a wash. Also, for either kind of meteorite, the heating depends on the rate of deceleration which in turn depends on the mass and cross-section of the meteor, and the angle at which it hits the atmosphere, and how much heat is carried away by surface material melting or boiling off, and by smaller pieces breaking off and carrying some of the heat with them. Also some of the heat is radiated away as visible light, but I would bet that’s a relatively small fraction for most meteors.

    We know the total heat applied to the meteor… It’s the sum of the gravitational potential energy (height times mass times the force of gravity) when it first hits the atmosphere plus the initial kinetic energy (mass times velocity squared), but the hard part is figuring out what happens to it. I think there is usually enough energy to heat the whole thing above its melting point, but most of the energy gets dumped by the surface boiling away.

    Note on terminology: A random object in space that might potentially crash into the earth is a meteoroid. When it is actually traversing the atmosphere, it is a meteor. After it hits the ground it’s a meteorite. I’m not sure of the transitions. Is it still a meteor after it stops glowing (while it is still a long way above the ground, or only after it has hit the ground?) Is it a meteor while it is in the upper atmosphere and hasn’t heated up enough to glow yet? (It takes a few seconds for this to happen.) Is it only a meteoroid retrospectively, after it has actually become a meteor, or was it always a meteoroid because it was on a collision course with the earth, even millions of years before the impact? Finally, is the object actually a meteor or is a meteor the atmospheric phenomenon cause by a meteoroid hitting the atmosphere? (In other words, is it the bright streak of light and (sometimes) the smoky trail, or is it the object causing the effects, or both?) Argh! Try to answer a simple question! :-)

    P.S. Great pictures!

    When a meteor breaks up like this one did, each fragment carries off some of the heat, and cools more quickly (lots of small pieces have more surface area than one big piece. Also, the fragments slow down more quickly, since they have less mass per area of cross-section. (These are square-cube effects of geometry, which often have interesting physical consequences.)

  19. StevoR

    Awesome pictures but is there an english language version of the site?

    I’d be interested to hear what he says about it all there buut can’t read the (is it?) Dutch there. Anyone care to translate it?

    (The meteor web page that is not this post! ūüėČ )

    @ 12. Trebuchet Says:

    Sad to say, but I can no longer look at meteoroid pictures like this without thinking of the very similar ones of the shuttle Columbia breaking up.

    Geez spoil it for the rest of us why don’t you! :-(

    But yes, that’s true. I guess it was the same sort of event reentry and break-up of a large object producing “meteorites” but come on, this meteor is very different from that disaster. I see what you mean but I’m still going to look at meteor images and photos like this and think they look fantastic and not see (try not to see /remember anyway) the ‘Columbia’ disaster.

    Methinks you should reverse things maybe and think : “Wow! The ‘Columbia’ disaster looks like a meteor break-up” not vice-versa?

  20. MHS

    Hi StevoR. Here is a quick translation of what he says about the meteor:

    “I was busy making pictures and suddenly saw this meteor. Just in time I took 6 nice pictures in 3 seconds.”

    And then:

    “Lots of astronomers and experts have heard my story about how this happened. I have had to answer thousands of messages and some phone calls from all around the world, and even now I get e-mails about it.

    It was quite a scare when I saw it coming, but I didn’t waste any time to capture this special meteor. I think I did pretty well, considering the speed of the fireball!

    These pictures are very valuable, as some astronomers told me that they hadn’t seen any like this before. Everyone is amazed by how I took these pictures.

    Now I’m world famous because of pictures I took of a meteor. Almost everyone has seem them, I think it’s amazing.”

    There you go.

  21. Seiya de Pégaso

    Porra, o meteoro q eu mandei foi parar na Holanda !!! Caraaaaalho !!!

  22. @8. MHS Says:
    October 16th, 2009 at 10:42 am
    “I was sitting in my living room watching TV when this thing flew past my window ”

    It is The Sign! You are the long-awaited fulfillment of The Prophecy!

    “It’s the same kind of story
    That seems to come down from long ago
    Two friends having coffee together
    When something flies by their window…

    “Now it’s not a meaningless question
    To ask if they’ve been and gone…”

    Tell us what we must now do, O Master!

  23. C64

    What is interesting to me is that if you follow the snapshots from beginning to end there is a obvious change in trajectory of the object due to gravity and the frictional effects of it hitting the atmosphere.

    One of the main claims of the “UFO as proof of alien visits” supporters is that an object “makes a clear change in trajectory”. A series of shots such as this one clearly shows how an object can appear to change direction…and that change can easily be explained due to gravity and the physical interaction of the object with the atmosphere.

    The photos show a definite change in the objects trajectory even given the limited field of view afforded by the camera. When viewed with the naked eye it is understandable to see how the change in trajectory could be interpreted to be a turn/course adjustment when it is, in fact, simple physics.

    I chalk this up as one more weak spot in the “UFOs are Aliens” armour. Don’t get me wrong…I would LOVE to see proof of alien life…but fuzzy snapshots and questionable eye-witness accounts don’t cut it and this photo series debunks many of said pieces of “evidence”.


  24. TheWalruss

    I’m sooooo bummed I didn’t see this thing. I had (apparently) just walked into my art class (in Groningen). Daaaaaang! Apparently people report hearing a tremendous explosion at the time, too. I missed it for some crappy lounge music in the tea room! AARRRRRRGH!

    I’m pleasantly surprised to see many people from the area commenting here, though! Fantastic!

  25. Observer

    Looks to me like NASA got part of one of their “lost” tools back!
    Maybe a hammer particle or part of a pry-bar.


  26. MHS


    You can stand down… I wasn’t having coffee at the time.


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