A persistent Orionid

By Phil Plait | October 25, 2012 7:00 am

Last weekend the Orionid meteor shower peaked. To be honest, it’s a rather weak shower, with a max of maybe 25 meteors per hour. I mentioned it on Twitter and other social media, but it’s usually a so-so shower at best so it didn’t seem worth it to plug it much. Even big showers like the Perseids, Leonids, and Geminids can be fairly variable in what you see, so I usually only plug the bigger ones.

Still, the Orionids can be nice if you have dark skies. Mike Lewinski went out to Embudo, NM (along the Rio Grande river) to do some meteor photography and happened to catch a spectacular fireball from the shower. It even left what’s called a persistent train, a trail of ionized, vaporized material that can glow for quite some time. I combined three of his images into one composite to show you the sequence:

On the left is the fireball, in the middle is the glowing train (as well as a second meteor that fell along the nearly same path as the first), and on the right the trail some minutes after the original meteor. He said the train was visible for over half an hour! He also put together a time lapse animation of it:

[Note: You may need to refresh this page to see the embedded video.]

It’s pretty fast, so you might want to run it a few times. Mike also created a second video that’s zoomed in.

I guess the lesson here is that it can’t hurt to go out and observe meteor showers (here’s a site where you can see when the next one is). You might catch something pretty amazing! And even if you don’t, it’s still a night out under the stars, and that’s still one of the best ways you can spend your time.

Image credit: Mike Lewinski, used by permission

Related Posts:

Like two trains passing in the night… a year apart
A meteor’s lingering tale
Southern skies time lapse: Nocturnal
Time lapse: Under the Namibian Sky

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (6)

  1. Isha

    Cool! I managed to catch multiple frames of one Orionid with an ion / debris train but it’s not nearly as crisp of an exposure. I need a cable release for the next shower.

  2. Grand Lunar

    Very cool.
    What might make it twist like that? Upper level winds or something?

    Next month should be worth it, provided we get a strong Leonid shower.

  3. A friend of mine posed a question about the video:

    The two trails on a curved path in opposite directions reminds me of the tracks of debris after a collision in a particle accelerator, where the curvature is the response of electrical charge moving in the magnetic field in the detector chamber, and the tightness of the curvature is related to the charge-to-mass ratio of the particle. Since you describe these as ion (i.e., charged particle) trails, I wonder if similar physics is at work within the Earth’s magnetic field?

    I’m betting that there is very little wind at that altitude (~ 40-60 miles up?) and this seems like a plausible explanation for the pattern that is formed.

  4. Wzrd1

    Do we have actual measured altitude of the persistent trains? A quick web search shows imagery, but little on actual scientific measurements of altitude or spectra of the ion trail.

    It’s strange to consider that we don’t know a great deal about our own atmosphere between the boundaries of balloon platforms and NEO platforms. Sounding rockets partially fill the gap, but only provide snapshots of a dynamic environment.
    So, every indirect measurement we can get is worthwhile. :)

  5. Andrei

    @#3 Mike Lewinski
    A deflection of the charged particles due to Earth’s magnetic field would produce two arching paths, tangent to each other in the starting point. The magnetic field would deflect the trails in an outward direction. The video shows two arching paths that are not tangent to each other – in fact they separate quite quickly and are deflected in an inward direction. From this, I would discard the Earth’s magnetic field as a possible explanation for the two paths.
    More likely, I would say, is the hypothesis of the meteor exploding / breaking up and sending the debris (ionized left-overs) on those paths. The arching may be due to winds since a wind having the same direction as the initial meteor will bend both paths inward. In fact, friction between the wind and the ionized particles will act as an accelerating force that will yield a parabolic path for the trails.

  6. Cool! Are there any hypotheses out there as to why some meteors leave persistent trains and others don’t? Does the composition of the meteor make a difference?
    Speaking of which, I wonder if a suitably quick and sensitive spectrometer could be built to guess at the composition of meteors via light from the fireballs? Sorta like the LIBS instrument on the Curiosity, ‘cept in this case the rock sample does the heating for us :)

    Shoot, Google answered my question for me. Turns out scientists first analyzed spectra from meteors over a 110 years ago! I did not know that 😛


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