Smoke trail left by brilliant meteor

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Michael J. Fraughton photo
Last week, I received an e-mail from Michael J. Fraughton of West Jordan, Utah. At 6:45 a.m. (November 18), his wife showed him a cloud formation of loosely formed rings. He took several photographs of the clouds, two of which accompany this blog. He used a Canon EOS Rebel XTi digital SLR with a Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens on the automatic setting.

Well, it turns out that the “clouds” actually were a persistent smoke trail left by a brilliant fireball that lit up Salt Lake City and its surroundings at 12:07 a.m. Wednesday. Observers in Tucson, Las Vegas, Santa Fe, and Los Angeles also observed light from the meteor. At the University of Utah, seismometers picked up a slight vibration during the event.

Michael J. Fraughton photo
Meteoriticists define a fireball as any meteor brilliant enough to cast a shadow. This object also seems to have exploded (based on the many reports of a single flash) in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Scientists call an exploding meteor a bolide.

Fraughton was only vaguely familiar with the camera, which is his wife’s. So he set it on “automatic” and placed his hand over the flash in order to keep the landscape dark. “I wanted it to think that it had the flash, so the sky would not get overexposed because of a low shutter speed,” he said. Good thinking.

Look closely at the images, and you’ll spot a white dot within the clouds. That’s Venus. Nice work, Michael. Thanks for sending in these great pictures.

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