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.