Did a meteor bring down Air France 447?

By John Conway | June 4, 2009 12:55 pm

Back in 1996, after the initially very mysterious explosion and crash of Flight 800 from JFK to Rome, there were numerous eyewitness accounts of a “streak in the sky” just before the crash. This led to the “missile theory” of the crash, which was eventually attributed to the explosion of the center fuel tank by the NTSB. But, also at the time, it was suggested that a meteor of sufficient size could have struck the plane, bringing it down.

Could a meteor have brought down Air France 447? Today we are starting to see reports that there actually may have been a meteor:

However, both pilots of an Air Comet flight from Lima to Lisbon sent a written report on the bright flash they said they saw to Air France, Airbus and the Spanish civil aviation authority, the airline told CNN.

“Suddenly, we saw in the distance a strong and intense flash of white light, which followed a descending and vertical trajectory and which broke up in six seconds,” the captain wrote.

Obviously for any given flight the chances are very, very small that a meteor will bring down an airliner, but as Hailey and Helfand pointed out in a letter to the NYT in 1996, the correct question to ask is this: “What is the probability that, for all flights in history, one or more could have been downed by a meteor?” They concluded that there was a 1-in-10 chance that this could happen…let’s use their logic, brought up to date somewhat, for 2009, for Flight 447.

Helfand, an astronomer, is presumably the one who estimated that “approximately 3,000 meteors a day with the requisite mass strike Earth”. This is a difficult number to get. How much mass? How fast does it need to be moving? But let’s assume that this number is correct; it translates to 125 meteors per hour.

Next we need to know the total number of flight hours at altitude for all commercial planes. In 2000 there were about 18 million flights per year. Clearly in the past 20 years (which we’ll take as our reference, since it spans 1989-2009, with both flights 800 and 447) it was not always so…but let’s take a guess that the 18 million figure is roughly correct for that 20 year period. That would yield 360 million commercial airline flights from 1989-2000. Hailey and Helfand assumed that each flight was two hours in duration. Again, a tough number to find on line, so we’ll take it at face value, giving us 720 million flight hours in our reference period.

They also claim that if there were 3500 planes in the air at any time, this would correspond to covering two-billionths of Earth’s surface. Now the earth’s surface area is 5×1014 m2. Using my trusty HP-15c, I get that this would imply an average target area for a commercial airliner of 291 m2, which is reasonable. Each plane, that is, covers 5.7×10-13 of Earth’s surface. If a meteor hits the earth it has that probability of hitting a given plane on average.

So, in our reference 20-year period we have 720 million hours of flight time, times 125 meteors per hour, times 5.7×10-13 = 0.051, which we can take as the average number of airliners struck by meteors in the period 1989-2009. That’s a one-in-twenty chance of some plane going down for this reason in that 20 year period. Extrapolating to all flights ever would require a better estimate of total flight hours, but it’s not twenty times the number in the past 20 years, for sure – that is, it’s not yet close to one.

Obviously there are a lot of uncertainties in this estimate; perhaps a factor of two from the number of meteors of sufficient mass per day, the average flight duration and number of flights?

Anyway the meteor idea is not crazy, though not likely. The weather seems more likely to be at the root of the tragedy…but we may never know. One thing, though, is clear: if we keep flying big planes at high altitude, eventually one will get hit by a meteor.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellany, News, Technology
  • shy

    Well, in spain a man reading his newspaper at Madrid’s Racecourse, in 1896, saw his newpaper breaking suddenly… the cause: a meteor.

    http://misteriosdelaire.blogspot.com/2007/06/el-ovni-del-10-de-febrero-de-1896.html (spanish)

    So it can be. Anyway I am sorry for this accident, althought there’s not need to say it, everybody thinks the same :-(

  • Bruce the Canuck

    “approximately 3,000 meteors a day with the requisite mass strike Earth”

    The words “strike the earth” stand out here. The density of the atmosphere increases exponentially with decreasing altitude. At 40,000 feet it’s less than half of sea level pressure. Wouldn’t a lot of meteorites break up or explode as they came down? So there might be many more substantial ones at jetliner altitudes?

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Has anyone done a similar estimate of the probability of an aviation accident caused by space junk?

  • Henry Mullaney

    I am also an astronomer. On any given day, many tens of thousands of meteors enter our atmosphere. These were extensively studied using radio scatter off of meteor trains, and they have been used for meteor burst communications. Nearly all of these burn up in the atmosphere before hitting the earth. Common sense tells you that if thousands of these fell to earth each hour, then we’d all have holes in our roofs.

    I agree that a meteor could have hit flight 447, but it is extremely unlikely. What much more likely event could have caused the 6 second burst of light? The same thing that brought down Flight 800: an explosion. The two most likely sources of an explosion? The fuel tank (as in flight 800), or a bomb.

  • roland

    Thank god we will run out of oil.

  • Exponential Boy

    Surely you can’t get the right answer with a multiplication.

    Using the numbers as stated: The number of events is 20 years times 125 events per hour. The probability of each intersecting the proportion of the globe not covered by plane: one minus 2 billionths. Raise that probability to the power of the number of events, and subtract from one.

    The chance of every meteor missing would come to a shade under 0.96, I think. So the chance of at least one hit would be a shade over 4%. If the numbers were right.

  • http://dfranke.us Daniel Franke

    Exponential Boy: for this many independent events it’s easier — and when you’re calculating on an FPU with limited precision, probably more accurate — to use a Poisson distribution. 1 – exp(-0.051) = 0.0497.

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  • foole

    “So, in our reference 20-year period we have 720 million hours of flight time, times 125 meteors per hour, times 5.7×10-13 = 0.051, which we can take as the average number of airliners struck by meteors in the period 1989-2009. That’s a one-in-twenty chance of any plane going down for this reason.”

    This final number does not seem realistic. If it were, then wouldn’t the failure rates of aircraft be much, much higher? Unless I completely misunderstand what is meant by “one-in-twenty chance of any plane going down” it seems like the expected failure rate due to meteors in any given year would far exceed the failure rate that’s been experienced thus far.

  • John

    foole, I tried to say it clearly, but perhaps failed. The number 0.051 is literally the expected number of aiplanes, out of all flights from 1989-2009, that would be expected to crash due to being struck by a meteor. I changed “any” to “some” in the post…

  • NotGoodAtMath

    “So, in our reference 20-year period we have 720 million hours of flight time, times 125 meteors per hour, times 5.7×10-13 = 0.051, which we can take as the average number of airliners struck by meteors in the period 1989-2009. That’s a one-in-twenty chance of any plane going down for this reason.”

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that there is a 1:20 chance that ONE plane has gone down from a Meteor in the last 20 years?

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    Are meteors uniformily distributed in where they enter the Earth’s atmosphere? I know for example that the moon helps pick up a fair number. And one would presumably expect more at any given time impacting the side of the Earth that is at that point moving forwards in the orbit around the sun. Since air traffic is very much not distributed uniformly across the globe nor uniformly distributed over time of day this could introduce a large factor in an accurate calculation.

  • http://kdpeterson.net Kevin Peterson

    Foole,

    “1/20 of any plane going down” means any one of all those millions of flights in the last 20 years, it doesn’t mean 1 out of every 20 planes get hit.

  • Ellipsis

    Yes — in fact, it was the very same meteor that killed JFK!

  • John

    Joshua: no, in fact we are hit by more meteors on the dawn side of the planet than the dusk side. You are absolutely right that we would need a good computer simulation based on real flight schedules to get an accurate estimate of the probability. And the question of just how big a rock you need is also very tough to answer…

  • gopher65

    You know, this never occurred to me before. Mind you, I don’t spend much time thinking about planes.

    I expect that “approximately 3,000 meteors a day” means 3000 meteors a day both intersect earth and have sufficient mass to make it down to the average commercial aircraft cruising altitude (the exact altitude depends on both the aircraft and the type of flight). As someone else mentioned, if 3000 meteors a day were hitting *the surface*, we’d all be living in underground cities:P.

    EDIT:
    Actually, I withdraw that.
    (3,000 meteors/day) * (365.25 days/year) = 1,095,750 meteors/year
    Earth’s surface area (from wikipedia) = 510,072,000 km²
    ((1,095,750 meteors/year) ÷ (510,072,000 km²))* 0.292 (% of Earth that is land)
    = 0.000627 meteors/year/km², on land.

    So even at 3000 meteors per day, in any given square kilometre (which is a pretty big area) you’re only going to have one impact every ~1700 years. That’s not so bad.

  • Peter

    This seems to be a very irresponsible article. To speculate so wildly on the cause of a crash such as this makes the author, and Discover magazine as a whole, appear foolish.

  • http://earthlink.com starlifter71

    TWA Flt 800 must have had an earth generated meteor, as the streak of light witnessed by several, including one USAF Colonel that I spoke first hand with, came from the ground. And this was just not a good day for this crew and passengers of AF 447, as the aircraft was simultaneously in one big ass thunderstorm at the same time it was hit by the meteor. Maybe the American Airlines AirBus that crashed at JFK in 2001 was hit by one too. Call AirBus and suggest this to them, they could use some help. For sure it couldn’t be due to delamination of composites construction used in the structure. I love their flight bulletin to the Air France crews to make sure they don’t fly too slow and stall the aircraft, causing it to come apart in flight! That suggestion would give me a big warm fuzzy.

  • KC

    Y’all seem to be missing an important point: the flight went down in a thunderstorm. Which is more likely: the plane being hit by a meteor or the plane going down due to the weather?

  • Ellipsis

    KC: But clearly you forget — the Chinese have been seeding thunderstorms for over a decade using silver iodide. And Lee Harvey Oswald once visited China, for a “tourist visit”. And meteors often contain magnetite — traces of which were mysteriously found on the Grassy Knoll… Hey, I’m getting good at this!

  • ackbar

    A very, very long time ago (ca 1970s) I read a story about a meteor crashing through the roof of a passenger jet and lodging in its’ undercarriage.

    I can’t say if it was an urban legend or not.

  • Mike S

    Ridiculous. If I accept your “1 in 10″ conclusion, then every 100 year old person has a 1 in 10 chance that a meteorite has landed within half an airplane’s length of them. I challenge you to find one or two 100 year olds in the world that have had this experience.

    Doesn’t remotely meet the reasonableness test, and you wrote a whole article on it. Discover used to be a decent magazine, bit now it’s written by a bunch of idiots.

  • Jacob W

    It seems that the surface area estimates should consider the profile of the plane when approached from various angles. I don’t know what the average angle of meteorite collisions is, but unless they are heavily weighted toward 90 degrees, the probability of hitting an airplane would be reduced significantly.

  • Göran

    The number of meteorites hitting the earth is often not that exact. It is a hard number to calculate and various sources vary a lot.

    The point I would like to make is that just because an aircraft is hit by an object it doesn’t need to bring it down. For every crash caused by a meteorite we should have tens or hundreds of aircrafts that have run into a rock and survived.

    But the probability seems almost right although I haven’t checked it myself. Another factor is the relative speed of the aircraft and the rock. The cross section is dependent on how fast the aircraft is traveling. At stand still it would be the surface area seen from above. If the rock would be standing still in the air (not that it will do but just for the discussion) the cross section would be the area seen straight ahead, a lot less. At cruising hight most meteorites have lost their cosmic velocity and are in subsonic free fall straight down so the cross section ought to be halved at least.

    To sum it. The probability that one air craft of all aircrafts in the world would collide with a meteorite during a 20 year period drops down to 2.5% and the probability for an air craft crash down under one in 1000.

  • JoAnne

    This is a great example of how to calculate an estimate! When I was a first-year graduate student, we all had to take a class where, among other things, we were called upon to go up to the board and calculate an estimate. I still remember estimating the number of piano tuners in the Los Angeles area (no joke, that was the problem I was given). Being able to make fairly reliable estimates is an essential part of the scientist’s tool-kit.

  • confused in the early morning monday

    On the aircraft side, flights are not uniformly distributed not only by your flight duration and flights per annum, they are also not at all uniformly distributed by time of day, track, or altitude.

    A hit requires a meteor and an aircraft to occupy the same *volume* simultaneously. Concurrently occupying different altitudes over the same WGS84 geoid coordinate does not result in a hit.

    Transport category aircraft altitude distributions are strongly constrained by ICAO and national regulations as well as engineering considerations; most of the time an aircraft like an Airbus A330 will be at 11km +/- 1.5km above the WGS84 surface while in flight.

    The same class of aircraft are also likely to be constrained to particular 1-d tracks over busy routes such as the North Atlantic (NATS) or the North Pacific (PACOT). Aircraft density will be higher along these tracks, they are still widely separated, since there are minimum spatial separations (generally 300m vertically (RVSM), 25km axially compared to an aircraft on the same track at the same altitude (track separation), and 1-2km transversely for any aircraft within 300m vertically (SLOP)). Aircraft were kept at twice that vertical and axial separations until less than five years ago (although there was no transverse offset).

    There are negligible numbers of flights over the southern polar region, the southern Indian Ocean, the South Atlantic and the South Pacific between New Zealand and South America. Very few flights linger in a band several hundred km to either side of the Equator because it is dangerous to do so because of violently unpredictable weather. Very few flights navigate the northern polar region in northern winter. There is no reason to believe that meteors preferentially favour the same volume of sky at 11km +/- 1.5km that the vast majority of flights actually use.

    Here is a visualization of 24 hours of air traffic. There is a lot of the planet not being flown over to any significant degree.

  • Ellipsis

    JoAnne: Approximately how many piano tuners have been hit by meteors in the Los Angeles area?

  • John

    Mike S: meteors burn up in the atmosphere and only bts make it to the ground; you can collect them on your roof if you want.

    Jacob W: do we care if the meteor, at 30 km/sec or whatever, hits at an angle or not?

    Goran: excellent point. We need a dent count on aircraft – that could help us calibrate the number of problematic meteors.

    Peter: I am not speculating, other people are. It made CNN, for cryin’ out loud. I am just trying to make a back of the envelope calculation to see if it’s even plausible. And, it turns out, it’s worth performing a decent simulation. Why you think that’s irresponsible I cannot fathom.

    It is clear the 3500 meteors/day number – which is not mine, it’s Hailey’s! – is a crucial one in this estimate.

    confused in the morning: if you think about it, the fact that 2 billionths of the earth’s surface has an airplane in the air above it at any moment means that 99.9999998% of the Earth’s surface does *not* have an airplane above it…right? But it doesn’t matter if all the planes were concentrated in one place, the fraction of area is all that matters.

    Anyway as I concluded in the post, a meteor does not seem likely, unless the 3500 meteors/day number is lowballed, and Goran’s point seems to indicate, if anything it’s way too high.

    I do hope that the cause of this terrible tragedy can be determined, and my heart goes out to the families of all who were lost.

  • Scott

    Mike S. You also make some assumptions about the 100 year old person having a meteor come down within an airplane’s length of them.

    How much of the time are you observant of your surroundings for 70 meters (about the length of a 747)? What percentage of the time are you even awake to observe things?

    How many people could later recognize a meteor that had come down near them that they hadn’t directly observed?

    How much of the earth’s surface do the observations of people cover?

    Is the 3,000-possible-airplane-hitting meteors a day calculated for 30,000 feet or for the earth’s surface and would the number decrease at the earth’s surface?

    I agree that the calculations they did probably overestimate the chances, but yours also make just as many assumptions–some of which rely even more heavily on human habits and observational power. It would seem to me that your assumptions are just as questionable as theirs.

  • Ram

    No meteor could bring down an airbus unless it were of significant size. Meteors of the required size fall to earth every 10,000 years.

    RAM

  • Scott

    Seems to me that velocity and puncturing power are more important than size, since holes in the wrong places could bring a plane down as a secondary effect, especially if the plane was already in a thunderstorm and rough weather.

  • Gray Gaffer

    The most likely posited reason is extreme turbulence. I do not know how an Airbus compares to a 747 in its defensive design, but I did have an extreme turbulence experience in a 747 once. Since then, as the plane survived, I hardly notice normal turbulence any more as I now know what those airframes can withstand.

    These large planes are large enough that high or low pressure pockets can be smaller than the plane. This means that one wing can be in a down-draft while at the same time the other wing is in an updraft. A pocket like this is also less than the length of the plane. The result is a very fast roll force – a fraction of a second. It however conveys enough impulse to roll the plane a good 90 degrees in that time. Yes, 90 degrees. The plane stands on one wing very suddenly, then almost immediately does the opposite roll. “Unnerving” misses it entirely. We experienced this for about 2 hours across the center of the continent. I would guess tens of rolls, plus the more normal sudden drops and rises. I was seated in the very last row; the attendants had opened all the partitioning curtains at the galley islands before strapping themselves down, so I could see the entire length of the fuselage.

    Did you know the tops of those islands are not connected to the ceiling? I observed them moving sideways by several inches during those rolls. The front to rear torque of the fuselage looked like a good 15 degrees. Maybe my memory exaggerates some (this was in 1976), but it was very clearly visible. The wings flap too. A lot. That early cartoon of a Jumbo landing like a pigeon with full on wing flare is not too far from reality.

    The point of this personal anecdote is that these large airframes are designed to take an incredible amount of punishment, largely by yielding and flexing rather than excessive rigidity, and it has to take eye-wall level forces to break one up. I do not think CAT gets to that level and remains clear. So the probability of turbulence downing the plane is also not that high. It has been a long time since lightning strikes did severe damage too, the bypass technology has been good for many years. So not that either. As to the meteorite hypothesis, yes they pack a punch. But they would be pretty small (a few pounds at most) and at the speeds involved they would punch holes on entry and exit, not explode the plane (think straws through trees from a tornado), and these airframes can probably sustain that kind of impact in most parts and still fly (remember that Australian flight that lost the entire top of its forward cabin?). However, the Airbuses are completely fly-by-wire, no old-fashioned cable or screw backups, and if that goes dark you’re SOL. If it goes dark in that heavy turbulence, you are totally out of trim before the backups can come up. And FBW works best when the unconstrained flight characteristics of the airframe resemble those of a brick. Not sure if they can roll like the infamous 707 roll over Lake Washington. Telemetry indications are of a massive electrical failure, just before the link dropped, so I heard.

    But we may never know. It went down over the mid-ocean trench. Only the floating bits will be recovered. Flight 800 went down in pretty shallow shelf waters, so the stuff on the sea bed was recoverable.

  • Foldedpath

    Serious failure of Occam’s Razor here. Sure it’s fun to speculate about meteors, but even the caveat about “The weather seems more likely to be at the root of the tragedy…” betrays a lack of understanding of the many factors that might have been involved.

    Try this article about a flight computer malfunction in a similar aircraft, for starters:

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/time/20090603/wl_time/08599190242100;_ylt=AovL1H36VhT4vJmBaFksg2S9IxIF;_ylu=X3oDMTE1MnZiOXY3BHBvcwM1BHNlYwN5bi1jaGFubmVsBHNsawNhcGFzdGZsaWdodG0-

    The WSJ has an article with focus on possible problems with the pitot tube icing:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124411224440184797.html

    I’m not suggesting that either of these is the cause, only pointing out that there are many things that can go wrong in something as complex as an Airbus… including human factors. Focusing on long-shot ideas like meteor strikes because they’re “cool” to think about, doesn’t advance our understanding of how to prevent tragedies like this.

    I’m hoping that one good result that might come from this, is a change from black box recorders (which can’t be recovered in deep ocean or the worst crashes) to steady telemetry uplinked to a satellite network, so commercial aircraft losses can be analyzed without having to locate a black box recorder.

  • steve

    just som e faulty math on statistics! but may turn out to be reaLITY AS THE CENTER FOR DISEASE CONTROL puts your chance of dying by meteorite at 1 in 20k.

  • Ram

    So far as I can tell, the current theories are leaning toward the plane being slowed too severely and stalling, then breaking up in flight. This seems impossible since the Captain was 58 years old with over 11,000 hours of flying time. His two copilots were young and more likely to commit such an error. There is some speculation that the captain was not in the cockpit at the critical moment.

    RAM

  • JonP

    John @28 – A dent count on an airplane would be meaningless in regards to meteors. Planes are struck by ice regularly, and just about any fuselage you look at up close is going to be dented all over.

  • RD

    To the cynics I can only say, rare events do indeed happen. As a child in the then Northern Rhodesia I was struck by lightning (and taken unconscious to hospital). Calculate the probability of that happening in your life.
    The question is not could it have happened? But rather what evidence is there?

  • http://macovich.com Darryl

    First of all, a bolide (fireball) is only incandescent in the upper atmosphere and most often travels great distances from the last visualization of frictional heating.

    Um, I have a wild idea…..how about looking no further than the most likely of explanations???

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  • http:www.scibuff.com scibuff

    @John @Jacob actually, by the time a meteor reaches 10-12km (com. airline plane altitude) it would have slowed down to its terminal velocity (a few km/h). Since the plane is moving at around 500 km/h in most collisions it would be actually the hitting the meteor head on, significantly reducing the collision area cross-section (from 291 m² to a only few m²)

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    While the probabilistic argument is tempting, there is the fact that the statistics are meaningless if a wildly improbable event is nonetheless what actually happened. It’s not impossible that an airplane could be destroyed by an object burning up in the atmosphere. Other pilots witnessed something strange in the vicinity of the Air France 447′s flight path. What caused the loss of the plane is presently a mystery, and we lack even a fragment of physical evidence of it crashing, beyond its disappearance. So many variables could have contributed to a weather-related failure (including unknown flaws in aircraft design which make it impossible to estimate likelihood), from the seemingly probable (turbulence?) to the improbable (largest lightning bolt in recorded history?), of what use are the odds in our present state of ignorance? I do not mean this question to be rhetorical. Is there something I’m missing in this discussion, or the approach taken to air disasters in general? What takes something even as bizarre as a meteor strike off the table at this juncture? I don’t find it that unreasonable to respectfully speculate along those lines, for the time being, so it’s an honest question in my mind.

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  • Todd

    For any given probability that a meteorite will strike an airplane, there must be a much larger probability that a meteorite will pass within dramatically visual range of an airplane. I haven’t heard many (any) reports from passengers or air crew about things that sound like meteorites passing close by. And I contend that it’s something that we would expect to hear repeated: “Holy #$%! That fireball went streaking right past us! Man, that thing could have hit us!”

  • Ja Muller

    MikeS wrote:

    “Ridiculous. If I accept your “1 in 10″ conclusion, then every 100 year old person has a 1 in 10 chance that a meteorite has landed within half an airplane’s length of them.”

    What??? How does this follow at all? It is guessed that there is a 1/10 chance that 1 or more planes has been hit in the history of flight. That is not even close to saying that 10% of 100 year olds have been that close to a meteorite.

  • http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,195392,00.html zzzzz

    This blog post is in the same poor taste as those that were claiming that Senator Kennedy’s brain cancer was precipitated by gamma-ray bremsstrahlung when his small plane was struck by lightening in 2006.

    I very much doubt a meteor or even lightening brought down this plane. More likely is human error worsened by severe turbulence, or even a bomb.

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  • aj

    @todd How many pilots do you talk to? How often do people stare out the window into the clouds? In my 70 or so flights, I have only seen 2 other planes flying outside the window and that was within 10 miles of the airport.

    also, didn’t take long to find something documented on meteorite views from an airplane: http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1940PA…..48…93M This person was able to take a picture of it.

    Also, every year their are tons of stories about meteorites hitting people’s homes and such. Like it or not, big rocks fall to the Earth. Ignoring the problem leads to no constructive measures to understand the risks.

  • «bønez_brigade»

    Methinks the following sentence should have said:

    That would yield 360 million commercial airline flights from 1989-2009.

    Else, 11 yr × 18 E6 = 360 E6 = madness.

    ‘Twas a good post, nonetheless.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Space junk is also possible, but at the time of the accident nothing reentered the atmosphere:

    http://www.reentrynews.com/upcoming.html

    The Safir 2 rocket body

    http://www.reentrynews.com/2009004b.html

    reentered just a few hours before the accident happened.

    A list of space junk that was found on the ground is given here:

    http://www.reentrynews.com/recovered.html

    Some of the larger pieces:

    In August 1970 five oblong pieces of steel (0.6-0.8 m long, mass about 70 kg each) and one flat steel plate (1.2 x 1.2 m, mass 290 kg) fell in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

    Identified as parts from Soviet Cosmos 316, launched 23 December 1969, which reentered 28 August 1970.

    In January 1997 a steel propellant tank (1.7 x 2.7 m, mass 270 kg) landed near Georgetown, Texas. A titanium pressure sphere (diameter 0.58 m, mass 32 kg), and a composite combustion chamber (0.76 m long, average width 0.25 m) landed near Seguin, Texas. A lightweight fragment of charred woven material (10 x 13 cm) struck a woman in Turley, Oklahoma. She was not injured.

    Identified as debris from 2nd stage of Delta II booster, used to launch Midcourse Space Experiment on 24 April 1996. Stage reentered 22 January 1997.

    In March 2002 a titanium pressure sphere (diameter ~1 m, mass 49 kg) landed in a home in Kasambya, Uganda. No damage or injuries were reported.

    Identified as debris from 3rd stage of Ariane 3 booster used to launch GStar 1 and Telecom 1B on 8 May 1985. Stage reentered 27 March 2002.

  • Taylor Richards

    The probability of a tiny meteorite hitting an Airbus and downing it instantly is ZERO. Aircraft of this caliber can handle small holes in any portion of their wing or fuselage. If it hit an engine, this still would not be a problem.

    Whatever happened was INSTANT and the Pilots did not have time to communicate the situation. If a space-pebble put a hole in the fuselage or other portion of the aircraft, this situation would have enough time to radio in.

    I know the argument now is if this event could ever happen, but in relation to current news, the plane was downed by a series of negative variables.. (Equator + Elevation + High CB Clouds + 100mph up-drafts = Fuselage rips from wings).. that is why the wreckage is spread over 50+ miles.

  • gregl

    Absolutely ridiculous idea.

  • Ross

    How does this probability compare with the chances of an Earth killer asteroid hitting earth?

    The “Earth killer” seems to be a pretty accepted fact (at least in the public) that someday this event will happen (not if, but when, etc.) Or is that probability based on physical evidence of past catastrophic impacts?

    Just curious…

  • Patrick

    I’m wondering if there will be more impacts in the equatorial regions than at the poles because most interplanetary debris orbits in the plane of the solar system. If the impacts do not have even geometric distribution, it could change the probability of aircraft impact significantly.

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  • David

    Are you assuming a meteor is a point mass? They aren’t really. Further, I’d warrant a guess that a meteor could possibly take down a plane even if it physically ‘just missed’ the plane. It could also be trailing loads of little bits of debris as it breaks up; even a small one could do a fair bit of damage a plane.

  • mars

    To those that think a meteor and/or meteor shower could not have brought down AF 0447, think about this.
    On June 1 the asteroid KR21 was supposed to be in it’s closest proximity to the earth. Within a 0.7 LD, that’s barely 167,000 miles from the earth, according to spaceweather.com website . Could debris from this rather large asteroid, 21 meters in size, filter through the earth’s atmosphere and have a direct strike on the aircraft? This may sound highly improbable, then again so are all the other theories such as a lightning strike or hail storm bringing down a modern aircraft equipped with all the latest in flight technology. If there were means of tracking meteors and/or meteor showers or space junk debris via orbiting satellite or radar, I wonder if such data could reveal a different story to the demise of AF 0447.

    P.s. Here are some links to the spaceweather.com and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory websites archives for the June 1 meteoric events. Of interest, read about the frequency of meteors burning up in our atmosphere during meteor showers. Also, links to articles on space debris.

    http://spaceweather.com/archive.php?view=1&day=01&month=06&year=2009

    http://ssd.jpl.nasa.gov/sbdb.cgi?sstr=2009%20KR21;orb=1;cov=0;log=0;cad=1#cad

    http://orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov/

    http://www.space.com/spacewatch/space_junk.html

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Count, thanks for commenting on the space junk.

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  • Frank

    Uh, this foolishness assumes a 100% probability of impact = crash. That’s not the case. Most likely, the plane will limp home. As a whopping zero planes have ever been identified as being hit by a meteor, this whole line of reasoning is obviously wrong.

  • http://amateurgeek.blogspot.com The EGE

    But assuming that there’s a 5% chance that any plane was hit by a meteor during these 20 years, what are the odds that #447 itself was hit?

  • TRY

    OK, it could be a meteorite, but on the other hand …

    Some years back I flew on an Airbus A340 from London to Trinidad and before take-off they had some technical problems. After around five hours the captain told us that they had solved all bar a warning light that they could not get off, so they would try to restart the computer system (and no, we are not talking the entertainment system here ;-) . We were told that the lights would go off for some minutes during the process, which they duly did, after which the captain declared the operation a succes and we took off, slightly more than six hours late. (Sorry, no disaster here.)

    To be honest that is probably my most “scary” incident in a plane and believe me I have travelled a lot by air and had a some quite “interesting” experiences, including a mid-air engine malfunction.

  • mars

    frank, you sound so sure. are you a leading expert on such matters? in a proper investigation, shouldn’t all possibilities be considered, however unlikely, and pursued with the modest of interests? even the unsinkable titanic revealed itself sinkable given all the proper parameters. or do you still believe the titanic is unsinkable? by your reasoning, there can never be a first case scenario, therefore ignoring the fact that there always has to be a first case scenario in order for a scenario to exist in the first place.

  • Alvin Nonymous

    This is all fun speculation – but let’s not forget the people who are left to deal with the tragedy of losing a loved one. Would you like to be the one to have to go and tell a greiving widow that her husband was killed in a plane crash – and it had to happen sooner or later? I’d like to be there to see that – she’d probably knock you flat!

    Besides the meteor was travelling upwards – can someone calculate the odds of some alien who was living on earth – because his house was just repossesed because of the failing economy – rushing to leave – and wasn’t really looking where he was going – and crashing into the plane. (If so -the plane crash was actually the result of our failing economy).

    What are the odds of this one……

  • dolf

    This estimate is way too high. While the assumption of meteors hitting in a uniform pattern (over time) may be somewhat close to reality, this is not true at all for planes. Planes fly, mostly, along specific airways.
    If the odds of a circle the size of a meteor hitting a position, randomly chosen in a square (uniform distribution), hits any of a fixed number of airplane sized circles in that square, randomly distributed, are one number, now image this: the plane circles are not uniformly distributed in the square, but all have their centers on the diagonal from bottom left to top right (a jetway). Most of the meteors will hit outside this diagonal line, dramatically reducing the odds as computed in this article. A single such line of 0.1mi wide airplanes moving along a diagonal occupies only 1/7 of the area of the 1mi square.
    So, therefore, without computer simulation, you should compute the average area of each sq mile occupied by airways (airplane circles) and use that to divide your answer. I estimate that, on average, a square miles of earth’s surface is occupied by so few airways that this reduces a factor of more than 1,000. Making the estimate 100 times less.
    Secondly, since meteors hit more on the dawn side, a correlation with the fact that the majority of flights take place in the daytime should also be taken into account.

  • Harry D

    Right on David.
    59. David Says:
    June 5th, 2009 at 10:56 am

    Are you assuming a meteor is a point mass? They aren’t really. Further, I’d warrant a guess that a meteor could possibly take down a plane even if it physically ‘just missed’ the plane. It could also be trailing loads of little bits of debris as it breaks up; even a small one could do a fair bit of damage a plane.

    The post below is one I made a few hours ago on
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/06/05/flying-the-meteoric-skies/

    20. Ellipsis Says:
    June 4th, 2009 at 6:44 pm
    KC: But clearly you forget — the Chinese have been seeding thunderstorms for over a decade using silver iodide. And Lee Harvey Oswald once visited China, for a “tourist visit”. And meteors often contain magnetite — traces of which were mysteriously found on the Grassy Knoll… Hey, I’m getting good at this!

    Ellipsis,we are discussing humans travelling in “metal birds” and communicating across millions of miles “telepathically” and you point to these conspiracy theories?! What would someone have told you a hundred years ago if you mentioned flying across the Atlantic? That would have been more of an absurd notion than a meteor bringing the plane down now wouldn’t it? Be a little open minded please. Those that are stating a meteor could have brought it down are not saying so definitively, they are merely saying it was a possibility. No need for the irony.

    A few things I would like to point out. Often times a meteor sighting or to be more precise a bolide sighting is sometimes precluded by unusually intense rain and or hail. This is caused in part by the ice melting off the meteor and coming down as precipitation. This could have been a massive storm caused caused by multiple objects. I believe that the flash of light seen by the pilots on the Air Comet flight (how ironic is it that the name of the airline is Air Comet?) could have been another meteor descending in the area and not necessarily the one that brought Air France down. The other thing that everyone seems to have overlooked when calculating the odds is the fact that the bolide does not have to actually strike the airplane in order to bring it down, it just has to get close enough so that the electromagnetic disturbance caused by it will affect its’ electronic instruments. Or if it explodes close enough in the atmosphere the pressure wave it generates could have the same effect.It seems that the Airbus is more susceptible to this than older planes. I am looking into reports of meteor sightings coinciding with the same model plane loosing several hundred feet of altitude over Australia in October of 2008. Coincidentally the first ever asteroid tracked from space that had pieces of it recovered on the ground occurred on the same week. Qantas Flight 72 had problems two months later over Australia and that coincided with an uptick in meteoric activity as well. That’s my two cents.

  • Ignatius

    Mike S: No, this calculation is for 18 million flights per year, with an average flight time of two hours, for 36 million flight hours per year. There are only 8,760 hours per year for any one 100-year-old person to account for. So, divide 36 million by 8,760, and what you’re really trying to say is that given 4,110 people of 100 years of age, there is a 1:10 chance that one of them has had a meteor land within half a plane’s length of him in his lifetime.

    Of course, as others have pointed out, this is assuming that all those meteors that are a threat to planes also make it to the ground, which is also not the case.

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  • Rob

    The calculation may be a little flawed. They are using the area of the earth’s surface, but if you are going to calculate the ratio of airplane area to earth area, you need to calculate the area of the earth at 7 miles up, which is the altitude planes fly. At that hight, the area of the earth is an additional 1.8 trillion square meters, which makes the ratio of airplane to earth even smaller.

  • Pascal

    The calculus delivered by John is completely wrong for another reason. It is based on the incidence that at a given moment of time a meteorit coming down covers just that surface that is also covered by an airplane. However, it is not only the surface that matters, but also the position in altitude. In particular, the meteorit may be positioned anywhere below or above the airplane when it passes. Hence the probability of hitting is much smaller than 0.051 (letting some mistakes in combinatorial calculus aside). For the same reason, the collision between the meteorit and the airplane cannot be compared with hitting the earth surface. The latter is of altitude zero and any meteorit (large enough) must eventually hit.

  • http://werdn.us Andrew Garrett

    I’m afraid this is a case of Garbage In, Garbage Out. You’ve taken a whole bunch of unsourced, plain guessed, or unapologetically incorrect numbers, and then expected the result to be somewhat correct.

  • toni

    The probability of any of us to exist is virtually zero. Still all of us do exist. So the actual probability “size” is immaterial. Maybe a meteor hit AF 447, maybe not. All the models and calculations in the world will prove or change nothing.

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  • James Conner

    Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
    A killer rock, that’s what you are;
    Flashing through the southern night,
    You hit the Airbus in mid-flight,
    Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
    Next time try to plunk a car.

  • |John R Ramsden

    I assumed the cause might be freak giant hailstones smashing the cockpit window, as happened to a Korean jet which barely survived similar damage a couple of years ago, or even damaging the engines.

    But Air France are now reporting that the plane’s flight management programs sent at least 25 error messages in the minutes before the crash and were busy shutting down all the systems.

    Of course those errors may have resulted from damage caused by something else, but it raises the possibility of software being responsible, which for the Airbus wouldn’t be the first such incident.

    I seem to recall that at one point it had an alarming tendency to report the wrong altitude, so that pilots would think they were higher than they were, like that plane crashed by the villain in one of the Die Hard films.

  • http://nakedcapitalism Geoff Ballard

    Interesting blog. Can someone please translate #80 into English?

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  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Rob, that’s not true because you can compute the flux by using the Earth’s surface and then you can use that flux to compute the rate of collisions anywhere.

    Then, if you look at your argument about the area getting larger as you go up, you see that you forgot to take into account the fact that not all meteorites that arrive at that height will end up hitting Earth.

    Of course, we are neglecting the effects of the atmosphere here which may be unrealistic…

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Pascal, the computation is simply based on a “flux argument”, see my reply to Rob (#85) and it is completely metthematically rigorous within the rough approximations made about the physics (neglecting the atmosphere etc.).

  • http://www.letsroll911forums.org Daniel Hellwege

    This has been my theory all along. I believe a small meteor did hit AF447. This explains the light over the horizon and the no mayday cause.

    The major media will not admit in the increase of fireballs “meteors” in the runup for 2012. If you check the NEAT or JPL at NASA you will be surprised on the activity that day the plane went down.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Andrew:

    I’m afraid this is a case of Garbage In, Garbage Out. You’ve taken a whole bunch of unsourced, plain guessed, or unapologetically incorrect numbers, and then expected the result to be somewhat correct.

    It is ok for an order of magnitude estimation. It is done all the time by engineers and scientists. You first do an order of magnitude computation to see if there could be a problem or some intersting phenomena. If the order or magnitude computation indicates this, then you would think about doing a more precise computation.

    How else could you select what phenomena is interesting enough to take a deeper look at? If you have the attitude that you will not do any order of magnitude computations based on rough data and instead you would only do a fully fledged computation based on data that you would first look up in some library, then it would take you quite some time before you even found out that the effect you are considering is many magnitudes too small to be interesting.

    There may be some other interesting thing that would be worthwhile taking a deeper look at, but you would never find it as you would always be bogged down getting the last decimal correct for uninteresting things. This is because there are vastly more uninteresting things than there are interesting things.

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  • 333

    Well… I don’t know much about space junks hitting the earth, but lets assume there are many of these objects entering the Earth’s hemisphere. If they didn’t get burn out and fall into our sky, can aircraft radar still have time to detect it?

    Also, some pilots witness there is a big white light striking an object presumly the Airbus, if that wasn’t space junk, may be its positive charge lightening. I don’t know much about this either, I just read some stuff about commercial jets are designed to be able to cope with negative lightening, but not the positive one. Anybody have anything to say on this….

  • J D

    It was reported severe lighting storms were in the area and the aircraft was experiencing severe turbulence because it was reported that sms’s were sent one stating the keyword “fear” which is synonymous with serious turbulence. The most likely scenario as that a lighting bolt had struck the aircraft’s critical computer systems most likely frying the BIOS systems, and causing a complete power failure with no backup computer isolated as a cold start to take over, plunging the aircraft into darkness, the pilots would have had to try and find their way in a dark cockpit for a torch to be able to use it as emergency lighting, however its likely they would have suffered serious ‘leans’ that would have disorientated them. In serious turbulence the aircraft would have begun uncontrolled flight and probably exceeded its its structural limits and broke up in mid air. Even with orientation there would be limited primary flight control of the aircraft to be able to engage the first rule of flight when in trouble and that is “fly the aircraft” because the fly by wire has no mechanical/hydraulic backup, which may have saved their lives.

    To me from media reports it appears they flew a perfectly good aircraft into a storm. Its not the first and wont be the last time this has happened. Storms are extremely dangerous and should be avoided by 20kms at the very least.

    Bombs, meteorites, are far fetched with the evidence so far thats been reported.

  • Pieter Bastemeyer

    It has been such a sudden crash (no mayday, just 24 automated messages) that it seems logical to theorize about other causes than weather. Furthermore, no other airplane on the same flight path reported any problems.
    So we have the meteor theory: unlikely, but possible. Another plausible theory might be -the airplane was crossing the equator when it was lost- that debris from space, a freak encounter with a crashing (geostationary) satellite, caused the end of flight AF 447.

  • Greg

    As Henry Mullaney said very early in this comment thread, the estimate of 3000 meteors/day hitting the ground and being big enough to damage an aircraft is problematic. As he said, common sense would indicate that we would all have holes in our roof.

    To quickly see that, just assume the target area of a house in the US is the same as the aircraft (roughly 17m x 17m), take the odds of the target area being hit (5.7×10-13), and compute the likelihood of that area being hit in the 20 year reference period (which is power(1 – 5.7×10-13, 3000 meteors/day * 365 days/year * 20 years)). You get 1 in 80,000. Which means that, of the roughly 77.6M single family homes in the US, about 48 could be expected to get hit by a meteorite in any given year. We do not hear news reports of about 48 houses getting hit by meteorites every year.

    So, one of the numbers appears to be wrong, and it probably is the 3,000 meteorites per day number. Probably the question should be how many meteors per year are big enough to do damage if they hit an aircraft flying at 30,000 feet? I am no astronomer, but some references online seem to indicate that the number of meteorites we see that are still walnut-size or greater when they hit the earth is two orders of magnitude lower, about 30/day.

    If you rerun the airplane strike calculation with that number, 30 meteorites per day, you get about a 1 in 2000 chance of a meteor hitting a plane in the 20 year period, extremely small, just something we might expect to happen sometime in the next 40,000 years. It also gives you the odds of a house in the US being hit by a meteorite in the last 20 years as being about 1 in 2, which seems closer to reality.

  • Maria

    Hello,

    Meteorites come from space but Megacryometeors are large chunks of ice weighing even more than 200 kg that are formed in the Earth’s atmosphere.
    Could a Megacryometeor have brought down Air France 447?
    This possibility about the hazardous of these extreme atmospheric ice fall events was already warned in several scientific papers and in the website:

    http://tierra.rediris.es/megacryometeors

    Also, there is an extremely interesting news in Discover Magazine:

    http://discovermagazine.com/2009/jan/073

    Cheers,

    Maria

  • http://filmexpeditions.com Bonnie Ember

    A plane run by computers, can also be hacked.
    I like the idea above, of the flight recorder, being uplinked to a Satellite.

    Next time my plane is going down, I will remember it. (Just kidding.)

    For now, I am going to enjoy my life, & remember, that it is a gift.

    I just left the ITCV last month.
    Shot an HD film in Tahiti.

    The film is up on http://www.youtube.com/alphaember, if you would like to go to Tahiti, without leaving home!

    Regards

    Bonnie

  • Angela

    Granted, a meteorite bringing down the Air France flight is very, very unlikely. But if a goose can cause a highly sophisticated airplane to crash into the Hudson River, then there’s also an admittedly small possibility that a meteorite could also cause a catastrophic crash. The odds are also incredibly against someone winning the lottery once, let alone twice, yet there have been several examples of one person winning a lottery twice.

    It’s like forecasting the weather. There may only be a 10% chance of rain, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll only get 10% of the rain at your house. It’s all or nothing (rain or no rain) once the event occurs. So despite the odds, it is a possibility to be considered given the lack of other data. Using Occam’s Razor, of course this is unlikely, but unlikely is not the same as impossible.

    My heart goes out to the loved ones. I can’t imagine their pain at the uncertainty as some still hold out hope for a Lost-ish emergency landing.

  • http://www.perimetroviajero.com perimetro

    a meteor brought down the Air France 447 ????
    if a meteor hits you,,,you don´t get 4 minutes to send 24 messages….and they would´ve informed about it inmediately..

    And why not a UFO from Alpha Centaury being hostile?????
    You´ve watch too many science-fiction movies….
    The plane is in the bottom of the ocean and went down due to a major power failure

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  • AyaTech

    #97 And you know this because you were on flight 447, or are you perhaps just speculating like the other people here?

    #75 Hmm, try this little experiment: put a matchbox on a piece of plain A4 paper.. Look at it from above, thenn raise the matchbox closer to your eyes.. The higher it gets, the more of the paper it “covers”.. So in essence the plale at cruising altitude would “cover” a larger area of the planet, than if it was on the runway.

    #53 So what would happen if a meteorite went through the windshield? The airplane is able to fly on with small holes anywhere in the wings or fuselage? What about a meteorite going straight through the fueltank, afaik those metorites are burning, and if they get in contact with a highly flammable substance, what would happen?

    I have no idea what happened to AF447, I do not presume to know enough to guess what happened, I do know this though.. Do not dismiss a possible cause for the accident, just because its unlikely.

  • http://none Mike Christman

    I´ve got another theory for everyone to think about. Although it has been reported that the weather encountered by AF447 was not unusual for that time of year, nevertheless it was severe. A rare phenomena associated with some thunderstorms is the occurance of red sprites and blue jets. Although these events usually happen above active thunderstorm cells and extend into the mesosphere and ionosphere, their effects throughout a thunderstorm cell when produced are relatively unknown. Another, even less known phenomena associated with thunderstorms (which is also being intensly researched) is the generation of short duration gamma ray bursts as well as very intense VHF pulses called TIPPS. Current research suggests that all of these different thunderstorm related phenomena are high altitude events, however, nothing is known about the possible side effects an aircraft can experience when flying in or near a thunderstorm cell when one or more of these type of rare events happen. Some of the energy that is released seems to be enormous. I wouldn´t doubt if AF447 was subjected to a massive burst of energy, especially a gamma ray burst that shot through the thunderstorm it was flying through, it could have wiped out it´s entire electrical systems in short order. This may explain why other aircraft flying through the same area were not effected. This may also explain the unusual flash that the Air Comet pilots had seen. AF447 just happened to be in the wrong place at a very wrong time. I believe these rare atmospheric events could be a hazard to air safety and is worth investigating, special attention being paid to the Airbus 330´s electrical system when being exposed to high levels of energy discharge of various types. Here is a link which helps explain what I´m talking about: http://elf.gi.alaska.edu

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  • tomshiba

    Hunh? I failed statistics twice, but I do have over 6,000 hours as a commercial pilot. It is possible as you have stated. However, the pitot tube suggestion makes much sense to me in that if the pilots and computer did not get the proper information on speed then the jet could have broken up prior to plunging to the ocean below.

  • The iTod

    You are all missing something very important. This plane was one of the A300 series of which a # of A310 have had “incidents” due to the composite rudder/tail failing in flight. One of which crashed in Queens. The Airbus people say that the pilot can over-operate the pedals causing the rudder to fail and possibly removing the whole tail section. Heavy rudder operation could be possible while attempting to navigate through a storm. I think that any plane where the pilot input on the control surfaces could cause loss of the plane is a poorly designed plane. I personally will never fly on an A300, A310, A320 or A330 (A340 and A319,320,321 are different designs). We may never know though and that is probably the way Airbus will like it.

  • The iTod

    PS – If you think that planes with major design flaws that lead to loss of life are not allowed to fly then you need to find out the truth about how the FAA operates. Just google on 737 and rudder problem. 737′s had a flaw that probably caused at least 2 major crashes that existed on 1000s of planes until just a few years ago and probably still has not been addressed in the 3rd world flight operations of 737s. The FAA is more than willing to play roulette with our lives.

  • David

    There is a 50/50 chance the airplane was hit by a meteor. Either it was or it wasn’t.

  • digger24

    A few years ago–I believe in the late 80′s–a metior missed Air Force One by onlt a few hundred yards—hmmmm

  • Chris

    Maybe aliens shot the plane down. That would be just as likely. This article is absurd.

  • Matt Cucchiara

    Not only would a meteor have to hit a plane, it would have to hit a vital part of the plane (like the pilot) to bring it down. Using the surface area of the average meteor still viable at that altitude compared to the total surface area of the plane divided by the vital surface area, this increases the odds from 20 – 1 of any plane in the past 20 years going down due to a meteor strike to over 20,000 to 1. How many planes have been hit without anyone knowing it? Possibly one (if we use the 1 in 20 theory) and going down? Probably none (20000 – 1) taking the vital areas into consideration.

  • Tall Dog

    Calculations and speculations for this type of event are all very necessary to stimulate the discovery processes in our collective engineering mind. Some of the “calculated estimates” are very far out but do tend to trigger the next idea – remember, thinking is free. One blogger suggests that a continuous stream of black box data to satelite to ground is an EXCELLENT IDEA. This triggers me – retired ocean engineer – with experience in acoustics and deep ocean search to suggest this: The black box in aircraft already have a pinger in them that allows for location of the device – now then – enhance the design so that the data can be down loaded accoustically when the box is interrogated. FSK or “frequency shift keying” is standard technology now used in various transponders. This is a complex signal that can contain much information.

  • MentorMan

    I find it interesting that before the crash was even located we were being told in the press that the black boxes might not be found? What? We always find the boxes, and have in much deeper water. So why float that balloon?

  • Art

    A bright flash? Flaming pieces falling to the earth? Just how stupid do you have to be to keep ignoring the OBVIOUS? It was a bomb.

  • Dave

    Art is correct, the news for a short period of time reported a terrorist bomb threat to the air craft just prior to its leaving the terminal. Naturally, the story was quickly yanked, because, after all We are living in a time of peace.

  • John

    Finally I found this: http://www.amsmeteors.org/fireball/faqf.html

    It confirms the “several thousand per day” number, but just how big are these things when
    they reach an altitude of 10 km?

    First, my post should have been titled “Did a meteoroid bring down Air France 447?” because a meteor is what you see, and it is caused by the rock, the meteoroid, which, if it falls all the way to Earth is called a meteorite.

    Anyway, by the time they reach the cruising altitude of an Airbus 330, I am getting that meteoroids are traveling at several hundred km/hour, not 30 km/sec, their “cosmic velocity”. They probably have not lost all their cosmic velocity, so some could be traveling at 1 km/sec or more. But how big a rock hitting a plane do you need, on average, to cause it to break up in flight? And how many of them pass through the 10 km altitude zone every day?

    Since my post, which has gotten quite a bit of attention, I have been trying to confirm Hailey’s number. But the more I read, the more I am leaning towards the idea that 3500/day is an upper limit on the number of Airbus-destroying rocks out there, and thus the final number of planes expected to be hit/destroyed by meteroids is less than 1/20, and quite probably a good deal less.

    Personally, my conclusion is becoming that no, a meteoroid almost certainly did *not* bring down 447. It was worth considering, especially given the mystery of it all. I don’t think the notion is absurd, just very unlikely.

    It will be up to experts to determine the cause of the crash. Now that bodies and actual pieces of the fuselage have been located, we’ll get a lot more information, perhaps enough to definitively rule out a bomb. If it was weather, coupled with iced-over Pitot tubes, that may be tougher to conclude but still seems to be the theory with the highest likelihood. I will be very impressed if, within the 30-day period that the black boxes send out pings, the military can locate and recover them. If they do, then we’ll get more information beyond the 4 minutes of massive electrical failure messages sent to the satellite.

  • Neal J. King

    Tall Dog (#109):

    - A ping is a pretty robust signal. How robust is FSK to frequency dispersion through water?

    - If you can modulate an FSK signal well enough to ask for a download, it seems to me that you could use the ping to find the black box. In that case, who needs the download?

    At least in the case of the satellite link, you are relieved of the need to find the box or the plane. In fact, even if the box had been destroyed in the crash, it wouldn’t matter.

  • Tall Dog

    In response to Neal King — FSK is not modulation but is frequency shift keying where a center frequency is used to send a certain number of cycles “in band” and a certain number “out of band” — from my experience FSK works up to 10km and does not disperse through water. Attenuation and diffusion can occur nears the ocean surface due to more air bubbles in that zone. This is why the interrogating transducer is usually lowered 50 to 100 ft. FSK works very well to send discrete signals to such devices as acoustic releases in order to bring intrumented moorings up from the bottom. A redesigned black box is definitely something to think about however I do think the satelite link is a top drawer idea that should be pursued. I think the costs would be less.

  • Bill

    I was on a plane flying from Paris to Boston. When I will guess about 50 to 100ft off the left wing a meteor zipped past the plane, a bright flash of light and a trail of smoke behind it. I was shocked, I had never even thought of something like that happening at the time. So I for one know this is definitely a possibility.

  • http://www.infowars.com Graeme

    Yeah…a meteor about the size of a predator missile strike, coming from Earth!

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  • Tall Dog

    Reply to # 118 — Very interesting comments– You should explain — in ENGLISH– why that is your premise and why you think there is not a more “earthly” explaination.

  • reason

    IF the aircrafts speed is added to the earths rotation near the equator heading eastward during the earths retrograde motion compared to direction of orbit… objects moving at cosmic speeds are now traveling opposite your direction. A small mass seems to increase with speed. Some other variables have been mentioned such as reliability of aircraft, weather conditions, I’ll add the point of orbit of earth relating to meteor showers, recent launches of satelites, rentering rocket bodies which can stay up for weeks, as well as regular spacejunk. Ice could also be a possibility and I’ll end there.

  • reason

    Ice from shuttle launches

  • Henry Barth
  • http://www.Fidelity-Mortgage.info Rod

    125 meteors an hour? It depends where they mostly fall to the earth.

    I think terror fits better. Paraguay is said to be a terrorist haven.
    The Nazis’ left Germany and went to Argintina. Iran is financing Bolivia
    to help Bolivia build roads.

    There’s said to be lots of Uranium in Brazil, Argintina, and the Paraguay area. They might have tested a missile- who knows.
    The meteor theory- It must have been one massive meteor to destroy a plane instantly.
    I think, someone with a cell phone would have called for help- and since no one did suggests the plane exploded instantly.

  • reason

    1. speed is additive hence (meteors, rocket launches, etc.) in this case
    wind on an aircraft is the variable involved? and they mentioned airspeed indicators and storms in the beginning I thought …anyway…
    thanks for the link Mr. Henry Barth :)
    I love to speculate about stuff and got caught up in all these posts here ,
    but as usuall wound up more confused then when I first thought I was right..or…errr…nevermind.

  • Andy

    In 1947 a terrific lightning storm brought down two unidentified craft over the desert near Socorro, New Mexico (the Roswell incident).

    Why is it so strange to think a similar situation couldn’t happen to an airplane – especially one that is ostensibly ‘fly-by-wire’ (totally dependent on electrical control)?

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  • Fritz

    ” Mike S Says:
    June 4th, 2009 at 6:51 pm
    Ridiculous. If I accept your “1 in 10″ conclusion, then every 100 year old person has a 1 in 10 chance that a meteorite has landed within half an airplane’s length of them. I challenge you to find one or two 100 year olds in the world that have had this experience…”

    I don’t know about 100 year old people, but I have had a meteorite pass by me at close range…. heard the whistle of an object above me, descending rapidly and I saw a flash of white light and heard a loud pop/bang as the meteorite exploded not more than 50 feet away from me….this was in the countryside, at night…

  • Akhenathon

    When something could not be explained… call the Meteor Factor! Dinosaurs extinct? It was a meteor. Plane down? Meteor. Stocks falling? Meteors on Wall Street.

    It’s easy, doesn’t require any special abilities.
    Try now: 1-800-METEOR.

  • phil

    any theory like this will be greatly appreciated by air france who clearly was negligent in not replacing a known defective sensor. when boeing aircraft go down they always send reps to help w/ the investigation. haven’t heard any such thing from airbus. oh wait airbus headquaters is in france also. how convenient for air france. i am sure they hope the black boxes are never recovered. phil

  • John

    http://www.salon.com/tech/col/smith/2009/06/08/storm/index.html

    Interesting perspective from an experienced pilot, over at Salon.

  • Johnny Brisbane

    Hmmmm

    If I understand your Math, you used the area of the surface of the earth to determine the 1:20 chance of being struck. I would think that in fact it might be better to use the surface of a sphere at the average cruising elevation of an aircraft – say 30 to 40,000 ft. Although too busy to do the math I believe you would find that this would substantionally reduce the odds as there would be a significantly larger area to spread out the 125 Meteors/hr…..

    Of course your calculations would be correct if you included aircraft parked at all the airports of the world except you would have to increase the amount of surface area of aircraft and time exposure – therefore dramatically increasing the odds of being struck.

    I, however, strongly believe that it is poor form to publicly trivialize the Air France Flgt 447 tragedy in which over 200 people died with some hair-brained math example.

  • Chuck

    There’s a nut job born every minute and they all seem to find the internet.

  • eric

    you conspiracy jackasses make me sick with your alternative sci fi bs crap. people died in this incident so show the families of the dead passengers some respect!

  • Sanaa

    Tribute Video to Passengers of AF447 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MW49uHuylE

  • «bønez_brigade»

    @Chuck,
    You spoke on time, yet too soon.

  • ?????

    do you thinks soo i dont ?????????

  • Neal J. King

    Some relevant anecdotal information that may serve as grist for some statisticians’ mills, from:
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/space/20090612/sc_space/boyhitbymeteorite

    * A 14-year old German boy was hit in the hand by a pea-sized meteorite that scared the bejeezus out of him and left a scar.

    “When it hit me it knocked me flying and then was still going fast enough to bury itself into the road,” Gerrit Blank said in a newspaper account. Astronomers have analyzed the object and conclude it was indeed a natural object from space, The Telegraph reports.

    * On November 30, 1954, Alabama housewife Ann Hodges was taking a nap on her couch when she was awakened by a 3-pound (1.4-kilogram) meteor that crashed through the roof of her house, bounced off a piece of furniture and struck her in the hip, causing a large bruise.

    * On October 9, 1992, a large fireball was seen streaking over the eastern United States, finally exploding into many pieces. In Peekskill, New York, one of the pieces struck a Chevrolet automobile owned by Michelle Knapp. Knapp was not in the car at the time.

    [I don't know why they emphasis the Chevrolet. Perhaps they retrospectively view this as a bad omen?]

    * On June 21, 1994, Jose Martin of Spain was driving with his wife near Madrid when a 3-pound (1.4-kilogram) meteor crashed through his windshield, bent the steering wheel and ended up in the back seat.

    * In 2004, a 2,000-pound space rock bigger than a refrigerator exploded in the late-night sky over Chicago, producing a large flash and a sound resembling a detonation that woke people up. Fragments rained down on that wild Chicago night, and many were collected by residents in a northern suburb.

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  • spyder
  • Jay701

    Let’s see: (1) two commercial airline pilots on Air Comet and a passenger see a bright, white, 6-second flash of light at AF447′s position; (2) two known terrorist names (per French intelligence service) were on the flight manifest; (3) the plane deconstructed so rapidly that no mayday signal could be sent; (4) no MSM account (NYT etc.) has reported (1) or (2): It’s the Bomb, Stupid! Occam’s Razor.

  • Neal J. King

    #140, Jay701:

    The most recent article I’ve seen on the flight indicates that:

    - Examination of the recovered bodies of the victims shows no burns: An explosion or bomb is unlikely.

    - Lack of clothing on bodies: The wind is thought to have removed them, so there was a plane break-up in mid-air.

    - No water in the lungs: The victims did not drown.

    With respect to terrorists on the flight: Bad things happen to bad people, too.

    Maybe you should re-sharpen your razor.

  • Jay701

    #141, Neal J. King:
    I had not seen the reports you mention. Of course the lack of explosive residue on the bodies undercuts a bomb theory. I do find it annoying and journalistically unprofessional that MSM do not report the terrorist names on the manifest or the Air Comet pilot reports, however. We may never know the cause for sure. Consider my razor sharpened!

  • Eric Fisher

    Here’s a more relevant calculation. In October 1992, a meteor did hit a car in my home town of Peekskill, New York. That is one report in the last fifty years, and the surface area of all parked cars is likely 2 or 3 orders of magnitude higher than that of all airplanes. (There are 300 million cars in the US and likely fewer than 1 million airplane. But an airplane is a lot bigger than a car.)

    Hence I guess the chance that meteor would hit a plane, parked or flying, is around .05 per century or millenium, not per decade.

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  • Rpchy

    WTF .. you got me lost since started talking about numbers and probabilities. instead of taking 4 paragraphs explaining that why dont you just say the probabilities of a plain hitting a meteorite and thats it.? it wont take more than one sentence and 6 words. thanks

  • A-Moose

    What’s more likely than a tiny rock hitting a plane is the theory that a larger meteorite hit the atmosphere and sent a shock wave instantly knocking out electrical and power. Most people know about the Tunguska event that happened in Russian 1908. That meteor exploded in the air and destroyed an area of 830 sq miles. There would be no visible proof if this happened over the ocean and may happen more than we think. Chances are still very rare, but are more likely if you think of how large that shock wave could have been.

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  • John G

    I think this calculation DRASTICALLY overestimates because it doesn’t take into account the volume of the atmosphere and and altitude of the planes intesecting with an incoming meteor. The original article cites the NY Times letter from 1996 saying “approximately 3,000 meteors a day with the requisite mass strike Earth”. It then points out “This is a difficult number to get. How much mass? How fast does it need to be moving? But let’s assume that this number is correct; it translates to 125 meteors per hour.”

    It’s that assumption (that the number is correct) that skews the number so much that it seems plausible. Nothing is said about altitude, only the frequency with which meteors “strike the earth”.

    Well, first of all, meteors don’t strike the earth… meteorites do. Secondly, if we’re talking about meteors (which burn up in the atmosphere), the majority of them do so in the mesosphere, typically at 75-100km, well above where any jet flies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meteoroid#Meteor).

    There is nothing to indicate in either the original letter from Hailey and Helfand in the NY Times, or in the Discover article, that they took into account a meteor not only striking at the point on the 2-dimensional surface of the earth over which the jet lies, but the point in three-dimensional space in the atmosphere which the jet currently resides when a meteor might also be there. Since the height of a jet is several orders of magnitude smaller than the height of the atmosphere, I believe this calculation overestimates the chance by those same orders of magnitude.

  • John G

    MOre: But let’s say every one of the 3000 they estimate “with the requisite mass” either WOULD make it all the way to earth or at least to the altitude necessary to down a jet. This does seem to be at least on the order of meteors/meteorites large enough to cause damage likely to strike earth. Which again leads me to believe they did not take altitude into account. Astronomy Cafe(http://www.astronomycafe.net/qadir/q896.html) quotes a study saying “On any given day, the estimates are than the Earth intercepts about 19,000 meteorites weighing over 3.5 ounces, every year of which fewer than 10 are ever recovered.” The 3000 is probably ~5X smaller number because they calculation assumed a larger size would be necessary to down a jet. The 19000 number inarguably is talking about striking at any point (2-dimensionally) or on the Earth’s surface. It would seem to me to be a MUCH smaller probability (by orders of magnitude, OOM) that one would coincide with the height of a jet when the jet were at that exact point in space.

    Addendum: Wouldn’t be the “same” OOM as I suggested above (as difference btwn height of jet and height of atmosphere), but still probably OOM lower than the precicted number. The speed of the meteors would increase the depth of atmosphere they pass through in a given time required to intersect the jet, thus “flattening” the atmosphere for them (greater chance of hitting a jet). However, they don’t move THAT fast and the atmosphere is pretty thick… you can sometimes watch a large meteor pass across (an admittedly large swath of) the sky over seconds. The chances, I think, of intersecting a jet are still much more remote than the original calculation predicts.

  • http://att Junior

    we are wasting money with all of these investigators and their corny ideas we could lay of the people of the NTSB and save a couple million dollars a year. Flt447′s fate will never be known the recliner chair witnesses was not on the plane a thunderhead with a canopy over 50ft is like trying to fly through an iceberg I have seen a radar image of the plane in the middle of two large thunder cells check the dopplers for that night. the only good thing about the crash was no one suffered throw away all of the calculators it has been proven that God will come in the middle of the night Moses crossed the Red sea in the middle of the night Jesus was born in the middle of the night and when he died the sun refused to shine– do the math

  • gslippy

    I like the meteor theory; I’m glad someone has taken a shot at the math.

    What about a Flight 990 (EgyptAir) scenario, where one of the pilots drives the plane into the sea?

  • Marc

    Stop all this crazy speculation & hope that the flight data recorder & cockpit voice recorder are fished out of the South Atlantic…..that’s the only way that the cause of the crash will be found out.

  • Stefano

    I must point out that TWA Flight 800 was directed to Paris – not Rome. It may seem irrelevant, but one must consider the 1994 hijacking of an Air France jet from Algiers to Paris.
    Four Arab terrorists shot three passengers execution style. Once the plane landed in Marseilles for refueling, the French attempted negotiations.
    When it became clear the four hijackers intended to blow up the jet over Paris or crash it into the Eiffel tower, French special forces stormed the plane, rescuing everyone aboard. The only ones killed were the terrorists.
    Unfortunately, one has to wonder whether the TWA flight 800 crash – barely a year and a-half later – was an act of revenge…

  • http://AOL.COM MARK

    THIS IS JUST ANOTHER COVER UP FROM START TO FINISH. WHEN YOU HAVE SO MANY STORIES WITH TONS OF CONFLICTING SENARIOS LEADING TO THE SAME OUTCOME, MOST LIKELY IT’S A COVERUP. A BANANA CREAM PIE MAY LOOK AND TASTE LIKE BANANAS….DON’T JUST ACCEPT BANANAS WERE USED JUST BECAUSE THE CHEF TOLD YOU SO. COVER UP AND I DON’T MEAN BECAUSE THIS CASE IS COLD…IT STINKS….

  • http://twitter.com/MarouChocolate MAROU CHOCOLATE

    I took a night flight recently and through my window saw i the space of 4 or 5 hours 2 meteors illuminating the sky. I couldn’t help thinking that once in a while a meteor could strike down a plane, through sheer celestial bad luck…

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