The Sciences

Peruvian "meteor" freaks out media

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitSep 1, 2011 11:00 AM


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A few days ago, the web was abuzz with something that looked like a very large meteor burning up over Peru. Here's video from ITN news:

[embed width="610"][/embed]

You can find similar videos on Youtube. However, is it actually a meteor? Cutting to the chase, I don't think so. I don't have a lot of solid evidence either way, but all signs point that way. Here are my thoughts: 1) Meteors tend to move more quickly. They usually burn up around 100 km (60 miles) up, roughly, and are moving at a minimum of 11 km/sec (7 miles/sec) -- Earth's gravity pulls them in to at least this speed. If you've ever seen a meteor you know they zip across the sky in at most a few seconds.

2) The two trains (the technical term for what most people would call the tail or trail) are very odd -- you can see them in the frame grab here. I've never seen a meteoroid (the actual solid bit moving through our atmosphere) produce more than one train. I don't think this is an optical effect due to the camera but actually two distinct trains. 3) The trains immediately start to get ripples in them, clearly due to wind. Meteor trains don't behave that way that I've ever seen. Sometimes they last for several minutes, and can get twists in them due to winds at high altitude, but that takes a little while. The ripples in the Peruvian object's train happen right away, indicating it's at a much lower altitude than most meteors. 4) The Sun is clearly setting off to the left. A meteor at 100 km or so up would still be in full sunlight, yet the train appears orange... as you'd expect from something at much lower altitude. Maybe you see where I'm heading here. Something much slower than a meteor, much closer to the ground, able to produce multiple trains and have them reflect the setting sunlight... sounds like an airplane to me. If so, the train is just the normal contrail, and you'd expect to see more than one, getting blown around by the wind. You may remember that last November the media went ballistic -- haha -- over an airplane that people thought was a missile launched off the L.A. coast

. So thinking this is a meteor may be natural, but I'm strongly of the opinion it's something quite more mundane. Having said that, I'll add I might be wrong. It's possible! I did once see a rocket booster re-enter, and it moved slower than a meteor (because orbital speeds of rockets that take up satellites are much slower than meteors coming in from space). Again, though the multiple trains make that unlikely. I'll also note that in 2007, a meteorite (what you call the meteoroid after it impacts the ground) did land in Peru. It created quite a stir, and while at first I didn't think it was an actual meteorite, it turned out to be legit (I wrote three posts about it: Part 1

, Part 2

, and Part 3

). There was a lot of confusion before it all settled out, but in that case there were some really odd things going on -- it landed near a lake, people got sick, and so on (turns out the hot meteorite created a plume that got tainted with arsenic from the water where it hit, making a lot of people ill). So I'm not surprised Peru had quite a lot of attention here. But this new object is not quite as exotic as that last one, and it really does look like an airplane with a contrail catching the setting sunlight. I wonder if the location, time, and direction can be nailed down enough to actually figure out if a plane was flying right there and then? I put that to my industrious readers if you want to try.

Related posts: - Hit or missile - Followup: more on the LA contrail/missile - An airplane con(spiracy)trail - What a falling star looks like... from space!

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