Meteor sightings are rubbish!

Meteor sightings are rubbish!

What have people in the UK really been seeing falling out of the sky?

On the evening of Friday 21st September 2012, reports of meteors being seen in the skys above the UK started to appear.

The Kielder Observatory in the north of England tweeted that a fireball had been spotted which broke up into smaller pieces after about 20 seconds.

When we think of shooting stars we normally think of lumps of rock from space falling towards Earth.  In the movies this often leads to a heroic group of tough guys lead by Bruce Willis heading into space to blow things up (see Armageddon for more details).

The truth is less spectacular but no less interesting.  Lots of meteors do come from elsewhere in the solar system, but plenty come from closer to home as well.

Talking to the BBC, Dr Tim O'Brien from the Jodrell Bank Observatory said that the meteors could actually have been "space debris".  In other words, the shooting star that caused so much interest may actually have been a lump of burning trash!

Shooting Junk

Here are some facts about Space Debris that may interest you:

  • There are millions of objects orbiting the Earth, although most of them are not much bigger than a grain of sand
  • NASA know of around 21,000 objects which are more than 10cm long (more than big enough to cause some damage if they hit something) and keep a close eye on any that might be dangerous to astronauts, satellites or us here on Earth
  • This flotsam and jetsam is travelling at more than 17,000 miles per hour!
  • Objects in orbit around Earth can be anything from scraps of metal to whole nuclear reactors
  • NASA estimate that at least one piece of space junk falls to Earth every day (but don't worry, most of them are too small to be noticed and burn up long before they get through the upper atmosphere).

One famous piece of space junk that reached Earth was a Payload Assist Module (that's a space rocket engine to you and me) which crashed in Saudi Arabia on 12th January 2001.  Although much bigger objects have crashed in the past, this one made it down in fairly good condition having fallen from 175km above the ground.

PAM-D module crashes in Saudi Arabia

A rocket stage module crashed in the Saudi Arabian desert (c) NASA

So, next time you see a shooting star do two things:

  1. Take a photo and send it to Planet Science
  2. Think to yourself, is that a stray asteroid from beyond Mars, or just a spanner dropped by an astronaut on the International Space Station?