Peruvian "meteor" freaks out media

By Phil Plait | September 1, 2011 7:00 am

A few days ago, the web was abuzz with something that looked like a very large meteor burning up over Peru. Here’s video from ITN news:

You can find similar videos on Youtube. However, is it actually a meteor?

Cutting to the chase, I don’t think so. I don’t have a lot of solid evidence either way, but all signs point that way. Here are my thoughts:

1) Meteors tend to move more quickly. They usually burn up around 100 km (60 miles) up, roughly, and are moving at a minimum of 11 km/sec (7 miles/sec) — Earth’s gravity pulls them in to at least this speed. If you’ve ever seen a meteor you know they zip across the sky in at most a few seconds.

2) The two trains (the technical term for what most people would call the tail or trail) are very odd — you can see them in the frame grab here. I’ve never seen a meteoroid (the actual solid bit moving through our atmosphere) produce more than one train. I don’t think this is an optical effect due to the camera but actually two distinct trains.

3) The trains immediately start to get ripples in them, clearly due to wind. Meteor trains don’t behave that way that I’ve ever seen. Sometimes they last for several minutes, and can get twists in them due to winds at high altitude, but that takes a little while. The ripples in the Peruvian object’s train happen right away, indicating it’s at a much lower altitude than most meteors.

4) The Sun is clearly setting off to the left. A meteor at 100 km or so up would still be in full sunlight, yet the train appears orange… as you’d expect from something at much lower altitude.

Maybe you see where I’m heading here. Something much slower than a meteor, much closer to the ground, able to produce multiple trains and have them reflect the setting sunlight… sounds like an airplane to me. If so, the train is just the normal contrail, and you’d expect to see more than one, getting blown around by the wind.

You may remember that last November the media went ballistic — haha — over an airplane that people thought was a missile launched off the L.A. coast. So thinking this is a meteor may be natural, but I’m strongly of the opinion it’s something quite more mundane.

Having said that, I’ll add I might be wrong. It’s possible! I did once see a rocket booster re-enter, and it moved slower than a meteor (because orbital speeds of rockets that take up satellites are much slower than meteors coming in from space). Again, though the multiple trains make that unlikely.

I’ll also note that in 2007, a meteorite (what you call the meteoroid after it impacts the ground) did land in Peru. It created quite a stir, and while at first I didn’t think it was an actual meteorite, it turned out to be legit (I wrote three posts about it: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). There was a lot of confusion before it all settled out, but in that case there were some really odd things going on — it landed near a lake, people got sick, and so on (turns out the hot meteorite created a plume that got tainted with arsenic from the water where it hit, making a lot of people ill).

So I’m not surprised Peru had quite a lot of attention here. But this new object is not quite as exotic as that last one, and it really does look like an airplane with a contrail catching the setting sunlight. I wonder if the location, time, and direction can be nailed down enough to actually figure out if a plane was flying right there and then? I put that to my industrious readers if you want to try.


Related posts:

Hit or missile
Followup: more on the LA contrail/missile
An airplane con(spiracy)trail
What a falling star looks like… from space!

MORE ABOUT: airplane, fireball, meteor, Peru

Comments (65)

  1. Dr.Sid

    This is clearly 4 engine jet. I’ve seen tons of them through telescope. The trail is unusually irregular, which can be explained by unusual winds, but that’s it.

  2. Bob

    I don’t know what it is, so it must be aliens….
    Giorgio A Tsoukalos

  3. Bobbar

    I would guess that the closer ‘train’ is casting a shadow on the further one, making them look strange and uneven.

  4. Ray Bellis

    Yup, no question in my mind is that it’s exactly what you suggest – a contrail lit by a low sun.

  5. I took me literally a fraction of a second only to come to the conclusion this was an aircraft contrail. It is so recognizable.
    Which is why it keeps surprising me that in these times of ubiquitous aircraft, people still don’t recognize these.

  6. I figure maybe there are places in Peru where you don’t see a plane flying past very often, but I would’ve assumed that ITN’s staff have seen enough, in sufficiently varied conditions, to recognise what a contrail looks like.

  7. Pepijn

    This is just ridiculous. Have these people never seen a contrail before?!

  8. JupiterIsBig

    But a lot of their focus is on getting people to watch their station – I’m not saying they have absolutely no credibility ot journalistic ethic. because I’m sure they do, but they’re not going to keep it off the air even if half the people in the newsroom just say “oh that’s a contrail” …

  9. It’s a conspiracy!

  10. Yui

    If it’s not a meteor, then it must be the right pinky of God. Else, why are there still monkeys? Teach the controversy!

  11. It looks like Michele Bachmann’s election campaign to me.

    Well, I can hope, anyway.

  12. Eric

    I’m guessing this thing didn’t burn up entirely. Has anyone seen the crash/impact site?

  13. Mick

    I would say it is a contrail from a large jet aircraft. At my location in South-East Queensland, I often see trails left by passenger airliners. The engines emit plenty of condensation nuclei, and along with the heat of combustion melting atmospheric ice, water vapour condenses to form clouds trailing behind the aircraft.

    Sometimes the contrails are detached by about 100 meters behind the engines, sometimes the contrails can stay up in the same spot, slowly dissipating over a couple of hours, all depending on weather conditions.

    When I was a kid, my dad spotted a good trail glowing bright orange in the setting sun. He said that there would be people out there with overactive imaginations (his choice of words was, erm, a little different) who would think that they would be UFOs.

    I guess he was right! Thanks, dad, for breeding me with brains.

  14. It is clearly an four engine airplane. I filmed a similar looking contrail from a B747 this winter, you can see the video on Youtube if you search for “Norway 5. March 2011 NOT a Meteor” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPlZvtcXQCQ
    It says something about the general science knowledge of the people at the news desk.

  15. Anchor

    There aren’t ‘two trains’ here, Phil. The central region is simply shaded by itself – notice the distinctly darker and browner color between the bright limbs of the train. It’s obviously just a thick contrail lit by a low sun, just as others have said.

    This is what comes of being able to zoom into something that people have rarely seen through binoculars or a telescope. Add horrible focus that barely resolves the aircraft, and you have an instant ‘mystery’.

  16. Peptron

    It’s in Peru… Obviously it’s The Golden Condor going to the Cities of Gold. I heard gold is high right now. I’d have followed it to become rich beyond my dreams.

  17. chris j.

    hmmm, a meteorite landing in a predominantly spanish-speaking area and making people sick. did any of them turn into a chupacabra?

    yes, i’m making an x-files reference.

  18. a christian

    I don’t know what it is, must be god

  19. Spaceman13

    It is the International Space Station re-entering. NASA doesn’t want you to know that the Soyuz mishap took out the space station. And of course we couldn’t save it since we canceled the space shuttle program.

  20. rob

    it’s Underdog.

  21. Dr.Sid

    Actually contrail can be double. For 4 engine jet it looks exactly like this .. check this picture (randomly found on google):

    http://thetyee.cachefly.net/Views/2005/12/14/jet%20trail.png

  22. CaptTu

    Those aren’t contrails… they’re “chemtrails”!!

    I’ve been to totally fact free websites telling me about them!

  23. kevbo

    @11. Eric

    I’m guessing the impact site was an airport a couple hundred km away

  24. Charlie

    Have to agree with everyone else here. It’s just an ordinary contrail. The only thing that makes it look even a little strange (to our normal everyday experience of contrails) is the zoom.

    The color isn’t at all out of the ordinary for sunset. I think folks are watching too much tv and internet and not looking at the sky enough.

  25. You realize, of course, that you’re dealing with a segment of the public that can look at a cirrus cloud being pushed along by high altitude winds and claim it “must” be a phantom wave from another dimension.

    And LOL @ kevbo.

  26. Peru obviously lacks a tiny man to scream “da plane! da plane!”

  27. CJSF

    “Hot” meteorite, Phil? I thought by the time of impact they were quite cool? I read this guy’s book that explains all that ;-)

    CJSF

  28. jrpowell

    Trains?! It must be the Galaxy Express!!!

  29. Rodrigo Valle

    @Marco Langbroek.
    I was going to write the exact same text you did.
    It took me a second to identify this as an airplane contrails in a low sun.

    Rodrigo Valle

  30. ethanol

    Also note the initial divergence of the two contrails and the subsequent re-joining. Classic jetliner contrail, although it certainly looks like a two-engine to me.

  31. Ken Walton

    I have once seen a meteoroid with two trains and an orangy tint in rural Germany in 2004 – it had the speed and silence of a shooting star and disappeared behind a hill in two or three seconds. That was long after sunset, so the tint couldn’t be blamed on that. Spectacular and very unexpected.

    This one though looks just like a plane to me – I live under a major flight path and see them at sunset all the time, and they look just like that. Must be a slow news day.

  32. Richard

    Looks like a plane to me. You can even see an object in front of the contrail at brief moments in the video.

    Oh, and just for the record, I have seen a parallel meteor trail before, but it was moving at typical meteor speeds (i.e. MUCH faster than what’s seen in the video).

  33. Anchor

    @#25 ethanol: Exactly.

    @#26 Richard: Ditto.

  34. SkyGazer

    Yup, that´s a plane alright.
    Common sight here on my island.
    They can however look incredible.
    Or trick your eye about how it moves.

  35. CraterJoe

    Can’t be a Meteor, the Gloster Meteor has been out of service for decades. :)

  36. Douglas Troy

    Have to agree with what others have already said here, this is a contrail from a airliner. When I lived in Miami, during the evening hours, I was witness to many jet planes leaving contrails just like this one in the sky.

    It’s that, or one of the Space Ships from Independence Day, in which case, they’re screwed, because Will Smith is state side right now. :)

  37. Kevin

    The most information I could find online about time was that this video was recorded at about 2:00 pm local time on Aug 25 in Cuzco, Peru.

    From that information, my best guess is that this “meteor” is actually TAM Airlines Flight 8067, an Airbus A320 that departed at 1:26pm Peru Time from Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima, Peru, on its way to São Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo, Brazil. It would have passed 50 miles or so to the south of Cuzco approximately half an hour after takeoff.

    Here’s a link to the flight path:
    http://flightaware.com/live/flight/TAM8067/history/20110825/1755Z/SPIM/SBGR

    The plane landed without incident in São Paulo. No space aliens were found on board.

    Incidentally, the city of Cuzco is at an elevation of about 11,000 ft, so airplane contrails look more impressive from there than from a city closer to sea level. Having visited, I can also say that it’s a beautiful city in the mountains, and well worth a trip.

  38. As I’m sure Phil has said before, people who look up at the sky a lot tend to know what they are looking at. For astronomers that is probably more relevant to the night sky, but for an aviation enthusiast such as myself, that is the day sky. I’m used to seeing contrails all the time. I would be very surprised if this was not an aeroplane.

    @29 CraterJoe: Some Metoers are still flying in private hands. 4 in the UK and 1 in Australia.

    @18 kevbo: Hopefully a very soft impact too :)

  39. Shane
  40. F-Trueba

    Hi Phil. The actual first part of the conversation on the video goes like this:
    -What’s that?
    -It’s a plane.

    So, you’re right.

  41. RobT

    Obviously aliens landing at the Runway of the Gods (aka Nazca Lines). Why else would they be way out in the desert? ;)

  42. Calli Arcale

    It is really really amazing how rarely people look up at the sky. A lot of people genuinely don’t know what contrails look like, because they so rarely bother to look — and when they do, conditions aren’t always right for conning. Some days, you get huge, poofy contrails that spread out over a course of a few hours to cover half the sky. Other days, you get clearly defined trails like this one, sometimes crisscrossing the sky. Then there are the days when the contrails are short, evaporating within seconds behind the aircraft. And some days all you can see is the sunlight glinting off of the aircraft itself, if you’re fortunate enough to be lokoing in the right place at the right time. And a lot of folks don’t know that, because they just don’t look.

    I”ve seen stunning sun halos outside on a day when nobody but myself is showing the slightest interest in the sky. People don’t know what they’re missing.

    BTW CraterJoe’s Gloster Meteor comment wins the thread, in my opinion. :-D

  43. Wzrd1

    Thank you for your contribution, Shane. It was highly enlightening.

    Gotta love the media, unable to fact check, research a subject or speak with an expert. They seem to prefer to go for the hype and quick headline, rather than report the truth.
    Like Kevin #38 did in what? 5 minutes max and counting a coffee break?

  44. QuietDesperation

    Well, at least they didn’t think is was a missile like they did here in the L.A. area, although a local news station has most of the blame for that by initially reporting it as a “launch”.

    I”ve seen stunning sun halos outside on a day when nobody but myself is showing the slightest interest in the sky. People don’t know what they’re missing.

    I’ve pointed out bright and beautiful sun dogs to people, and all I get is “meh…”

  45. Naked Bunny with a Whip

    I assume the only reason people are paying attention to this is the “fiery” color of the trail.

    @Peptron #16: Holy crap. A Mysterious Cities of Gold ref. Don’t see many of those.

  46. Chris Winter

    An airplane contrail for sure.

    It’s curious no one else commented on the way the camera was taken in and out of focus. When it’s in focus, the contrail looks narrow and white, as it should. I presume it’s high enough to still be in sunlight.

    Which of course raises the question of why it looks reddish when the camera is out of focus. It’s possible that’s an artifact of the CCD sensor’s response to light intensity; but this seems far-fetched. I have no good answer.

  47. Dave Jerrard

    It’s a plane. Looks like it’s moving pretty slow too, say between 200 – 300 mph.

    Chris #46: When something like that is blurred, you can see more of the color as it’s not overexposing as much; the light is being spread over a larger area, and thus, it’s not as intense at any given spot as it was when it was in focus.

    It’s a common trick to do with stars, where you intentionally defocus them a bit with you take a photo. This makes them appear large & blobby, but you also get to see their true colors better. It’s a bit harder to get their colors when they’re sharply in focus because the sensor tends to be overexposed in that tiny point. A similar thing would be happening here. Astronomy detail: Kepler does this too, but to get a better measure of each star’s brightness by spreading it over multiple pixels on a sensor.

    You can also get similar effects with motion blur. Something bright might normally appear white, but if it moves across a darker background fast, the image it leaves on a sensor or film is dimmer, and the real color shows through better. That’s why sparks normally look white, but on longer exposures, they create long colorful streaks.

  48. It is swamp gas of course. What else could it be?

  49. Yup, a quick glance at the first few seconds of footage and I knew it was an aeroplane contrail lit by the setting sun. I mean, don’t get me wrong – the coincidental angle and lighting all add up to a very cool-looking video – but only someone who knows pretty much zero about meteors would think for a moment that this is one.

  50. Tim

    @peptron I’m glad that someone else remembers that show.

  51. Titan

    100% confident this is an airplane. Source: 3,000 hours of heavy jet time along with common sense.

  52. Messier Tidy Upper

    @16. Peptron : It’s in Peru… Obviously it’s The Golden Condor going to the Cities of Gold.

    &

    @49. Tim : @peptron I’m glad that someone else remembers that show.

    I remember it too – that was my favourite cartoon for a long time as a boy . I just had to get home from school quickly in time to catch it. Still one of the best ever SF (Historic?) cartoons behind only Star Blazers – and ‘Battle of the Planets’ maybe,since that was the one that got my hooked on SF and the first SF TV I ever saw. Ah, memories. :-)

    I’ve also read the (very different & entirely historical) book ‘Cities of Gold’it was apparently based on – The King’s Fifth.

    Yeah, it’s pretty clearly a jet airliner contrail & yetanotherexample of media beat-up, research fail and laziness. Still looks nice & interesting though.

    @11. vagueofgodalming : It looks like Michele Bachmann’s election campaign to me. Well, I can hope, anyway.

    Yeah. Tim Pawlenty’s maybe although it’s a bit late seeing that one crashed long ago & hardly got off the ground. Newt Gingrich’s campaign maybe? ;-)

  53. Messier Tidy Upper

    Those who don’t know what we’re talking about may benefit from checking out :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cities_of_Gold

    Plus :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_King%27s_Fifth

    for the original – very different – novel.

    See also :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gloster_Meteor

    for the Gloster meteor. :-)

  54. Joseph G

    @42 Calli Arcale: Second that about craterjoe winning the thread.

    And also about how many people never look at the sky. This is exactly the reason that we have all these “Chemtrail” conspiracy nutters running around. Tell someone who’s never looked at a contrail for two seconds to look out for “strangely colored” or “persistant and spreading” contrails, and sure enough, they’ll see ‘em everywhere. It’s hard to know what “strange” is if you’re completely unfamiliar with all the variations of “normal.”

  55. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    So thinking this is a meteor may be natural, but I’m strongly of the opinion it’s something quite more mundane.

    But . . . if 100 tons of meteoritic material hit our atmosphere every year, surely meteorites are a more or less daily occurrence. And is not that pretty much the definition of “mundane”?

  56. Nigel Depledge

    Peptron (16) said:

    It’s in Peru… Obviously it’s The Golden Condor going to the Cities of Gold. I heard gold is high right now. I’d have followed it to become rich beyond my dreams.

    Would that be the Mysterious Cities of Gold?

  57. alfaniner

    Johnny Storm,

    or

    a small rocket ship from Krypton.

  58. CoolHandL

    I thought the flag at 0:32 was a Pride flag, but that seemed unlikely, and there is an extra stripe. I did a little research and found out that it is the flag of Cuzco, commemorating the city’s Inca heritage. It pays to avoid jumping to conclusions.

  59. I remember that Mysterious Cities of Gold cartoon. Thanks for bringing back the childhood memories guys!

  60. Casius

    CONTRAIL..trust me. I’m from Peru.

  61. Lorena

    I have never thing anything like that, and I have seen planes before. I have seen plumes left by some planes, since there are a couple of airforce stations nearby, but never seen anything like what is seen on that video.

  62. @64 Lorena

    Well now you have :)

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