The sky has been in the news a lot lately, from the fireball that outshone the Moon to NASA’s LADEE moon launch, so when your child tells you, “The sky’s falling” if might be worth more than a story about a little chicken.
Last night Quin, 9, and I were driving home from the grocery store just before dusk, sevenish, when he pointed out a bright flare in the sky, like a tiny sun that appeared and then began to shoot away leaving a very bright trail.
I had just told Quin that after sunset we would go watch the sky to see the crescent moon ascend within a blink of Venus. It’s called a conjunction.
We had already followed the story of the comet that outshone the moon. According to The Latin Post, “a large, bright fireball shined in the skies visible from the southern part of the United States last week on Aug. 28.”
So Quin was already scanning the dusky skies as we drove home.
We were stopped at a red light not far from home when he saw the first flash and burn across the sky.
It was 88-degrees and the groceries were going to melt, but how often do you get to be so Biblical with your child that you choose to “follow a star?”
Half a mile later, we pulled into the entrance of Norfolk Southern Railway’s Lamberts Point coal yard and got out to marvel together.
I captured the event in both photos and video with my cell phone.
The results are not great, but in the end would get us closer to finding out what we were seeing.
What we saw with the naked eye were irregular black shapes appearing in the sky with orange coronas that flared around the leading edge and bright trails of white light behind them. It looked like a match head burning through a picture of the sky from the back.
In photos they just look like a jet contrail super highway.
Some seemed to be falling up, others changed course. Two nearly collided. Several seemed to just come down through the atmosphere as hunks of blackness with an orangey corona at the head and then became all white light. Each lasted only moments. The entire event lasted less than about eight minutes.
Quin loves science and sky watching. He also has a relentlessly logical mind that demands there be no mysteries and so we set about to solve this one.
I thought it might be debris from the launch of NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE, which blasted off from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, at midnight the night before.
After Quin went to school today I called Dr. Edward M. Murphy of the University of Virginia’s Astronomy Department and Observatory and asked him what it could have been.
After examining the photos and video he said, “From the way these are moving and the fact that two actually seem to go right at each other from opposite directions, and their speed, it isn’t likely to be a naturally occurring event but more likely some sort of very fast, high atmosphere craft. Probably military but I can’t really say.”
“Probably,” I said, latching on to the word I know will ring the bell in Quin’s imagination.
“Given the angle of the sun and that the street lights were coming on in your video I’d say the flashes you initially saw could have been the sun off the hull of whatever was up there at that altitude,” Murphy said.
I haven’t yet had a reply from my calls to Air Ops at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, the closest authority on what’s literally up.
This means family geek time until the mystery is solved.
Today my son went to school with a photo of “meteors.” He’ll go back tomorrow with the same photo which is now symbolic of a family exploration of the stars and our imaginations.