Who doesn’t love space? All those planets and stars and shit. And when we get to see a little space magic from right here on Earth, most of us react with the commensurate joy and wonder. Once in a while, we do so a little rashly and without thinking.

So it was that today, the D&C – the paper of record in the Rochester, NY area – decided to publish a reader photo with the title, “The view from Greece: Meteor? Flare? UFO?” The objects in question are two deep orange conical shapes that appear to dart towards the Earth from the heavens. They sorta look like orange jellyfish on their way to visit our planet, presumably with either conquest or destruction in mind. Are they not one, but two UFOs, bent on malice that only the dulcet strains of Tom Jones can defeat?

Never minding, of course, that we have no less than the Strasenburgh Planetarium as a resource on which to rely for clarification. As well as the Astrophysics Department of the University of Rochester; the Astronomy Department at Rochester Institute of Technology (featuring umpteen telescopes and a working observatory, no less) and even the Rochester Astronomy Club. All could have verified the object in question.

A bit of common sense could have helped, as well. Let’s take a fast look at the image in question (you’ll have to link to it. Copyright and soforth) to see what we can parse out of it.

The photographer in question says he was out shooting long-exposure shots of the Lake Ontario shoreline. That means the photographer kept the shutter of the camera open longer than normal, to capture more light. When he reviewed his photos, he saw those orange smears, which were not visible when he took the photos.

We can see the water is definitely glassy and blurred, which means that the waves have been moving while the camera was open. So that sorta checks out, though he can’t have had the shutter open too long.  Otherwise, the lake would be one flat smear of color. It’s hard to imagine that the three or four seconds the camera was open allowed the orange smears to streak so far across the image.

So, let’s look at the orange blurs. They’re very, very big. And they’re flat in the front. And well,.. they’re orange.

Only two things could account for the orange color. Either they’re burning or they’ve caught an angle of the setting sun’s rays, which prism around the Earth. That prismatic effect, by the way, is what gives you a sunset of orange. Whatever it is, if indeed it comes from space, is not burning. That’s because most everything that is shooting past our Earth is made up almost exclusively of ice: meteorids don’t burn so much they melt and steam.

And in the case of the recently-reported meteorid visit to the Rochester area, you can clearly see that they’re typically very, very white and very, very visible. They’re also pin-straight until their eventual expiration, in this case, in a blast of white light. No jellyfish-ness. One line and maybe a boom.

In fact, it’s worth noting that the objects in the photo bear a much more striking resemblance to a comet than an asteroid. A comet gets it’s tail from the solar wind whipping off it and shredding ice particles off as it passes. But – and this is key – the direction of a comet’s tail has nothing whatsoever to to with it’s position relative to the Earth. Therefore, we can also rule out two simultaneous – and unknown to science – comets that both point seemingly towards the Earth.

Wait. They both seem to point towards Earth, don’t they? Look at the photo again. You can clearly see that the photographer must be using some sort of star filter on his camera to get those radial bursts around the sodium lights on the shore. If you take a scrap of paper with a straight edge and hold it up to the photo on your screen, you can see that the “meteors” in question both point directly at the center light. In other words, the most likely explanation is that the “meteor’s tail” can be purchased at Rowe Photo for about $7.

Here are a few much more plausible – though admittedly less click-worthy – explanations for what we’re seeing. One is that the flare lens caught a bit of stray light from the shoreline lights higher up on the image and reflected it back on the picture. That might even be the most plausible. But secondly, many satellites are visible from Earth and we barely register them. They pass overhead in a matter of minutes, and being metal objects that are reflecting sunlight, very often take on the reds, oranges, and other tones of the prismatic sunlight as they cross in and out of Earth shadow.

Most embarrassingly of all for the D&C, it’s entirely possible that, just because the photog didn’t see a plane in the area, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. I note a very heavy collection of clouds to the left of the image. Perfect for obscuring a plane high in the sky.

Headlines that end in question marks are pure link bait. Click whoring. I know this because I do it too. Glass houses and all that jazz, right? And everybody loves to have fun with a mystery, especially of the extraterrestrial variety. But science is more than fun and mysterious enough without the need to add easily-debunked confusion into the mix.

It is nearly impossible to stop paying attention to scary things, once they’re revealed. And in a click-hungry Internet media landscape (hey: guilty as charged), it is even harder not to want to write articles that you know are going to get clicks, even if they aren’t the most reputable or useful content.

So now that we’ve had our meteor visit in Russia and lots of “near misses” by other space debris – including one that came closer to us than our own satellites – it is easy to spend a lot of time and energy on these types of things. Why not? It is both scary and awe-inspiring to think of things unknown to us floating in space on a collision course with our Earth:

Scott Hubbard, a consulting professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford, thinks we can do something about that. Hubbard, a former director of NASA Ames Research Center, is also the program architect for the B612 Foundation, which aims to track down the hundreds of thousands of unknown asteroids that could pose a threat to Earth.

But the uncomfortable truth is that the Big Bang never stopped and the placid, gently floating galaxy you saw in Discovery Channel documentaries simply doesn’t exist. The universe is a dynamic, ongoing explosion, filled with lots of gas, lots of planets, lots of stars and yes, lots and lots of debris. The Earth itself is orbiting the Sun at a rate of approximately 67k miles an hour, which is itself rotating around the Milky Way at an estimated 8,700 miles per hour.

Basically, you’ve got a lot of crap spinning at a super-high rate of speed around a lot of other crap. And with more than a little regularity, some crap collides with other crap and you get a giant, intergalactic crap explosion. Bigger the crap, bigger the explosion.

And as pitifully expendable sacs of protoplasm stuck on Earth, we worry that even a small bit of debris could end us.

Galactically speaking, not an unreasonable concern. But what happened in Russia – and the media frenzy that ensued – is evidence not of our vulnerability, but of the extraordinary rareness of such events on a human scale. Debris hits our planet with perhaps disconcerting regularity, but does so completely unnoticed most of the time. That’s because not all space debris is measured in bus or football field lengths. And those large objects that do occasionally hit our planet happen on a regular albeit slow schedule, without wiping out life on Earth, let alone the Earth herself.

Sure. A city the size of San Francisco could suddenly cease to be. But hey! As long as you’re not there, you can say you “remember them when.”

The truth is that as dynamic and violent as our universe is, it is also quite big. And collisions with our Earth of the type we worry about are extremely rare. So I would hold off on that shooting spree you’ve been contemplating: there’s every reason to believe you’ll still be here to pay the piper.

Just because there’s so much news and information coming out about what is probably going to go down as one of the world’s worst meteor disasters in terms of human toll, I thought I’d get right out in front with a quick round-up of news and resources.

First, the most amazing video, ever. A dash cam shot of the meteor going right overhead. This had to be alarming, yet the cool Russian driver never even had to turn off his slamin’ beats:

PopSci.com has lots more videos, which they’re updating as they go.

Phys.org does a great job rounding up a lot of facts and figures about the nature of meteorite impacts:

When was the last comparable meteorite strike?

In 2008, astronomers spotted a meteor heading toward Earth about 20 hours before it entered the atmosphere. It exploded over the vast African nation of Sudan, causing no known injuries. The largest known meteorite strike in recent times was the “Tunguska event” that hit Russia in 1908. Even that strike, which was far bigger than the one that happened over Russia on Friday, didn’t injure anyone. Scientists believe that an even larger meteorite strike may have been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago. According to that theory, the impact would have thrown up vast amounts of dust that blanketed the sky for decades and altered the climate on Earth.

They also detail that Tunguska Event, which happened in an area so remote, no one is even entirely sure that it was a meteor.

And of course, lots of information is coming in from the Twitters. First and formost, @AstroKatie and @Summer_Ash set us all straight on the differences between meteorids, meteors, meteorites:

Physicist Matthew R. Frances ( @DrMRFrances ) tells us to chill a little:

And for those interested in why this whole event is unrelated to Asteroid DA14:

What is even more important: fragments of 2012 DA14 could never enter the atmosphere as far north as latitude 55 N (Chelyabinsk). Fragments in orbits similar to that of the asteroid, have a theoretical radiant at declination -81 degrees, i.e. almost at the southern celestial pole. They hence approach earth from due south. This means that the northern hemisphere is out of reach of these fragments: the northern hemisphere represents (as seen from these approaching fragments) the “back side” of the earth. They can’t reach it: they would have to pass earth and then turn back in order to do so.

Basically, the asteroid DA14 is coming at us from due south, so fragments of that asteroid, were they even potentially hitting the Earth, would hit the southern hemisphere.

One of my favourites, Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait, is also covering the event, and adds that, sadly, hoax videos are coming in as fast and furious as anything:

[Let me be clear: This is breaking news, and reports are coming in so fast I can’t keep up. I’ll update this post as I can, but treat everything here as tentative until I can get more information! Note also lots of hoaxes are turning up, like a video of a flaming crater that’s actually a flaming pit in Turlmenistan that’s been burning for decades (called “The Door to Hell”). Be cautious and be skeptical.]

Update 11:11: Matt Frances ( @DrMRFrances ) updates his blog with some thoughts on the wider meaning of the meteor:

For me, the takeaway message from the Russian meteor—and asteroid 2012 DA14—is that we need to do better at looking for dangerous meteors and asteroids. Astronomers (both professional and amateur) have identified nearly all of the biggest near-Earth objects (NEOs): the ones that, in the unlikely event they impact Earth, could cause mass extinctions like the one that probably wiped out the dinosaurs. However, the smaller rocks—called either asteroids or meteoroids—are harder to spot and to track.

Update 11:19: Russian officials are reporting that 950 people have sought out medical attention after the meteor, including 159 children. Three meteorites have been recovered, including one that left a six foot wide crater

Update 12:43: Sigh. Sloppy Reporting Watch issued for the New York Times.

  • Not a single credible report backs up this tweeted claim. Not. One. All of the damage and injuries reported there have come from the sonic boom.
  • The title of the article, “Debris and a Boom, Likely From a Meteor, Hit Siberia” is just crap. Of course, it is a meteor. And the debris backs up the idea that people got hurt by meteorites.
  • “Russian experts believe the blast was caused by a 10-ton meteor known as a bolide..” Sloppy. A bolide is any meteor that explodes on contact with the Earth’s atmosphere. It isn’t a special type of meteor.
  • Regarding asteroid DA14, soon to pass by Earth, ““What we witnessed today may have been the precursor of that asteroid,” said Mr. Dudorov in a telephone interview.” Call this “Citation Needed,” as every credible source says there’s no way these two events are related. Should never have been included.