Wednesday 30 September 2020

A very unusual fireball over NW Europe on 22 September 2020 (that went in and out of the atmosphere again)


The fireball of 22 sept 2020, ~3:53:40 UT. Image (c) Cees Bassa (stack of 2 images)

In the early morning of 22 September 2020, around 3:53:40 UT (5:53:40 local time), a very unusual long duration fireball appeared in the skies of NW Europe. It had a duration of over 20 seconds, and for several Dutch all-sky meteor camera's that captured it, it was a horizon-to-horizon event.

In this blog post, I provide a preliminary analysis of (mostly) Dutch camera records of this fireball. As it turns out, the meteoroid survived its brief passage through the upper atmosphere and came out unscathed at the other end!

The image above (which is a stack of two images, each showing a part of the trail) was captured by the all-sky camera of Cees Bassa in Dwingeloo, the Netherlands. The image below is one of several images captured by the cameras of Klaas Jobse in Oostkapelle. Other Dutch photographic meteor stations that caught it were that of the Bussloo VST (Jaap van 't Leven), Twisk (Marco Verstraaten) and Utrecht (Felix Bettonvil). Oostkapelle delivered both the sectored all-sky image below, and additional widefield images. A wide-angle image taken from Over in the UK by Paul Haworth was also kindly made available for analysis.


Click to enlarge

This was a fireball that entered the Earth's atmosphere under a very shallow, grazing angle: a so-called 'earthgrazer'. Because of the horizon-to-horizon aspect, I immediately suspected that this could be a very rare subcategory of 'earthgrazer': for a few of these have been known to enter the atmosphere, reach a lowest point above earth surface, and then leave the atmosphere at the other side again! 

 In other words, the situation of the schematic below:


The most famous case of this kind is the 1972 Grand Tetons daylight fireball (the first with instrumental records), but there have been a handful more since.

Analysis shows that the fireball from 22 September 2020 indeed belongs to this rare class of objects. The meteoroid approached the earth surface to a minimum distance of 91.7 km and then left the atmosphere again, on an altered orbit.

The Dutch photographic images plus Paul Haworths' image from the UK document some 745 km of ground-projected trajectory. The fireball moved from East-Northeast to West-Southwest, over Germany, the Netherlands, the southern North Sea basin and Britain. 

AOS from the photographic images was at 101 km altitude over Germany, around 53o.26 N 10o.22 E near L√ľneburg just south of Hamburg. LOS was at 105 km altitude around 51o.98 N 0o.60 W, between Luton and Milton Keynes in the UK. 

The point of closest approach (indicated by a cross in the map below) was near 52o.80 N 5o.23 E at 91.7 km altitude above the geoid, over Lake IJssel in the Netherlands, not too far from the Twisk camera station which had it nearly overhead.

Click to enlarge

As this was a horizon-to-horizon event, it is likely that the actual trajectory started a bit more eastwards, and ended a bit more  westwards (although Paul Haworth's image shows that by the time it left view of his camera in the UK, the object was rapidly fading).

The plot below shows the atmospheric altitude of the fireball along its ground track. It reached a lowest point at 91.7 km (where it was moving parallel with the earth surface), and then moved away again, surviving the close encounter:


Click diagram to enlarge

Note that the trajectory was, of course, not as 'curved' as the diagram might suggest: the fireball was moving along a nearly straight path and the 'curve' in the diagram is in reality due to the curved earth surface below it (incidently proving again that Flat Earthers are wrong)!

The Twisk, Oostkapelle and Utrecht camera's had an electronic periodic "shutter" in front of the sensor, providing speed data for this fireball. The fireball entered the atmosphere with an initial speed of 33.6 km/s. It barely slowed down during it's grazing encounter with our atmosphere, leaving it again at a speed of ~30 km/s. It hence was too fast to be captured by the Earth: it moved on in a heliocentric orbit after the encounter.

The object was likely not particularly big. Some first quick calculations suggest something in the 20-40 cm range for the initial pre-atmospheric size (but this will need more study). The object was not very bright (Klaas Jobse, who saw it visually, estimated a brightness of magnitude -5) and it did not penetrate deep into the atmosphere. There will obviously have been some mass ablation, but probably limited: a sizable part of the original mass should have survived and moved along into space again.

The observed radiant of the fireball was near RA 163o.7, DEC +6o.4. It's geocentric radiant was near RA 165o.8, DEC +3o.5. The fireball hence came out of the direction of the sun (the sun was at RA 179o.4, DEC +0o.2 at that moment). 

click map to enlarge

The orbit calculated from the 33.6 km/s initial speed and the geocentric radiant of the fireball using METORB 10, is a short-period cometary orbit of the Jupiter family type (Tisserand 2.8) close to the 13:4 orbital resonance with Jupiter. The descending node of the orbit is close to Mercury, so it could have had close encounters to this planet in the past. Perihelion was at 0.30 AU, aphelion at 4.45 AU with an orbital inclination of 3o.4 and orbital eccentricity of 0.87. The object passed perihelion on August 12.


click to enlarge

These results are preliminary, although probably close to the eventual values. The standard way of reconstructing meteor trajectories (the intersecting planes method) which I used here works fine for regular meteors, but for meteors with these extremely long, very shallow trajectories, the trajectory can get a  non-negligible curvature due to gravity. This effect is small, but I nevertheless want to re-analyze the trajectory the coming month, splitting it up in parts, so that I can account for this curvature. It will be interesting to see what the effect is on the position of perigee (the point of closest approach to earth), and on the radiant position.

Added note:  

Jelle Assink of the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute (KNMI) reported on Twitter that infrasound from this fireball has been detected.

(a few small edits and additions have been made after this blogpost was originally posted)


I thank Paul Haworth, Cees Bassa, Klaas Jobse, Marco Verstraaten, Jaap van 't Leven and Felix Bettonvil for making their imagery available for analysis.

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