Fire in the sky
September 16, 2008 7:27 AM   Subscribe

This week I saw something very strange in the sky - maybe you can identify what it was.

First things first: I am not a nutjob & my girlfriend saw it too so I wasn't imagining things.

The thing came from the west about 30 degrees above the horizon and it took about 3 minutes to fly overhead and then disappear off into the distance the other way. 3 minutes to cross the whole sky. It didn't seem to be falling, more like orbiting. When it was right overhead it was on fire really bright, and pretty big, about the size of a small plane flying at 2000m.

My question is was it a meteor or an asteriod or something else? Also is it common to see things like this? I looked in the newspaper (in Berlin) but there was no mention of it (maybe because it happened at around 4 in the morning)
posted by dydecker to Science & Nature (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A Chinese Sky Lantern perhaps? They are becoming very popular at weddings and parties here in Germany. So much, in fact, that it will probably soon be added to the list if things that are verboten because so many people call the police and fire department to complain of UFOs, burning balloons and Russian invaders when they see them.
posted by chillmost at 7:36 AM on September 16, 2008

Iridium flare?
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:36 AM on September 16, 2008

On preview, seconding chillmost. See also my question posted in June.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:39 AM on September 16, 2008

If you have the date and time handy try out Skywatch. The last time I saw the ISS pass over it was here and gone in just a few minutes.
posted by wavering at 7:45 AM on September 16, 2008

Response by poster: It didn't seem like it was reflecting light, it seemed like it burning
posted by dydecker at 7:46 AM on September 16, 2008

Yeah, if it looked close I would agree with the sky lantern theory. If it looked distant, it was likely a satellite (or ISS) still up in the sunlit altitudes contrasted against a dark sky. Iridium flares only last about 15 seconds.
posted by crapmatic at 7:46 AM on September 16, 2008

posted by watercarrier at 7:48 AM on September 16, 2008

Did it look like this? This month, in Germany. Youtube video. So far, comments lean toward fireworks (?).
posted by misha at 7:50 AM on September 16, 2008

Response by poster: Yes, it seemed like it was quite far away - higher than planes would fly but much closer to the earth than a "shooting star". If it was a satellite it was burning up in the atmosphere I imagine. Also it had no trail, it was one thing, and bright orange like fire - you could almost see flames coming off it.

I can't imagine it would be a lantern: would that cross a whole city in 3 minutes horizon to horizon?
posted by dydecker at 7:57 AM on September 16, 2008

But what did you use for a reference of how far away it was? How could you tell it was "higher than planes would fly but much closer to the earth than a "shooting star""?

You're talking serious speed to transit your entire view of the sky in 3 minutes. My bet is you saw a man made object in orbit reflecting sunlight.
posted by wavering at 8:05 AM on September 16, 2008

Military jet using its afterburner? Just to throw another idea out there.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 8:12 AM on September 16, 2008

Keep in mind that it's notoriously hard to judge the absolute size and distance of objects in the sky (hence the familiar optical illusion of the moon appearing larger near the horizon.) A 1-m lantern flying 200 m above the ground would appear to be the same size as a 10-m aircraft flying at 2000 m. The only difference is that the speed needed by the lantern to "cross the sky in 3 minutes" is much lower than would be needed by the plane; if we assume that it flew directly overhead and that you observed until it was about 10° above the horizon, then it would only have to be moving at about 20 km/h.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:14 AM on September 16, 2008

My understanding is that space debris falling to earth is fairly common and could explain what you saw. There used to be a program called spacelink that allowed educators and students to attempt to track these items, which appears to be defunct now.

It's *possible* that what you saw really was something burning in the atmosphere. Find out more about that possibility here.
posted by misha at 8:20 AM on September 16, 2008

Response by poster: But what did you use for a reference of how far away it was? How could you tell it was "higher than planes would fly but much closer to the earth than a "shooting star""?

I guess I can't really tell. As Johnny points out, it could have been a very big thing very far away, or something small which was closer. My feeling is that it wasn't small because the trajectory was 100% straight powering from one side of the city to the other - something like a lantern wouldn't be able to cross the sky in a straight line, it's something which goes up & down in an arc.
posted by dydecker at 8:24 AM on September 16, 2008

I'm guessing Iridium flare too. I suggest going to a satellite tracking page (like heavens above) and inputting your location and time and seeing if that was it.
posted by norm at 8:26 AM on September 16, 2008

Space debris (satellite, meteorite) coming in at a weird angle. "Shooting stars" don't have to "shoot" -- it's just a function of their angle relative to the viewer. Given enough material to burn off, an object can burn up for a pretty long time while entering the atmosphere.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:33 AM on September 16, 2008

Iridium flares last for a few seconds. You can see the satellite for a good portion or all of the sky where it appears as a moving dot, but the actual flare-up when it can become very bright only last for a few seconds. I highly recommend trying to watch some, but if the intensity of the light didn't change and it constantly appeared to be "on fire" then this was not an iridium flare.

Could the air have been really turbulent? Here in the Indiana as the remnants of Ike have passed over we've been having severely turbulent air. This could cause the bright light of the ISS to flicker and maybe making it appear on fire. I say the ISS but really any satellite would be right.

It could also be an earthgrazer meteor. I think the time is close to ideal for when you can see them, but I'm not sure what a typical earthgrazer transit time is so I don't know if the 3 minutes is way too long.
posted by Phantomx at 10:13 AM on September 16, 2008

one previous fireball question
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:40 AM on September 16, 2008

When watching a meteor shower a few years ago, I saw a big fireball like that. It seemed to move very slowly, but part of that was mental time dilation. It was nothing like 3 minutes, but I'm guessing you have some time dilation going on in either your perception of the event at the time, or in your memory afterwards. If it was 3 minutes, you probably would have grown a bit bored just watching it and started a conversation with your girlfriend, and covered a range of topics while it was still overhead. Can you remember this conversation (if it happened?), as re-acting that may get you a better time estimate?
posted by -harlequin- at 11:07 AM on September 16, 2008

I forgot to say - I think what you saw was a fireball meteor.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:12 AM on September 16, 2008

Response by poster: The air was very still and clear, not turbulent. I was on my balcony having a cigarette and watched it approaching overhead for maybe 20 seconds. Then I rushed inside and got my girlfriend. "You've got to come and see this." "What the hell is that? "That's not an aeroplane, is it?" "No." "What the heck is that?" "It's on fire." We stood there watching it pass overhead. "My god that's fast." So that's a minute or so. Then it went behind the building, so I climbed up on the ledge and watched it slowly get smaller over the city until it finally disappeared into a little pinprick of light over West Berlin. So all in all, I'd say three minutes is no exaggeration. No changing of intensity, no flashes, no sound.

I'll watch the fireball videos and report back. The previous Metafilter thread about fireballs mentioned sound (this thing made no sound), and all in all seemed more spectacular. Still, we've been puzzling about this for a week now.

Thanks for all your suggestions.
posted by dydecker at 11:49 AM on September 16, 2008

Response by poster: Okay, cool. I hunted on the net and found a video of what we saw. Taken in Frederichshain, a few kilometers from where I live on Aug 30th.

What the hell is that? Freakiest thing I've ever seen
posted by dydecker at 12:11 PM on September 16, 2008

Response by poster: It's a pity this thread slipped off the front page now that there is a video
posted by dydecker at 2:00 PM on September 16, 2008

Oh, that's totally a fireball meteor.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:26 PM on September 16, 2008

"My bet is you saw a man made object in orbit reflecting sunlight."

Yes. It was almost certainly a satellite. Satellites are often visible from Earth, and satellite spotting is a recognised activity.

"Suddenly, a star caught my attention by gliding steadily across the sky. It seemed to be moving very fast, and it featured a constant white light; it wasn't twinkling like the other stars. I was about to roust my cabin mates for a look at a UFO when I remembered what it was I was looking at--a manmade satellite." [source].

Not convinced?

"The International Space Station and the space shuttles are by far the brightest satellites. Orbiting the Earth at an average altitude of 240 miles, they can appear to move as fast as a high-flying airliner, sometimes taking just three to four minutes to cross the sky. They can easily be confused with aircraft lights, though at their brightest they sometimes appear to rival Jupiter in brilliance. [source].


A sky lantern crossing the sky in 3 minutes? Not likely!
posted by nthdegx at 1:40 AM on September 17, 2008

Argh - just watched the video - that guy's incessant zooming ruins it. It makes it impossibly to gauge the trajectory and whether or not the light seems to flicker. These would be the best clues to differentiate natural and man-made lights. I still think a satellite is the most likely answer, simply because of their sheer number.
posted by nthdegx at 1:43 AM on September 17, 2008

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