During the first half of 2020, I serendipitously captured a whopping nine meteors on my telescope’s 17 x 11 arcminute video field of view while observing potential asteroid occultation events. I used the method described in There’s a Meteor in My Image to determine the radiant for each meteor. Here they are.
The International Meteor Organization (IMO) identifies the antihelion source as “a large, roughly oval area of about 30˚ in right ascension and 15˚ in declination, centered about 12˚ east of the solar opposition point on the ecliptic, hence its name. It is not a true shower at all, but is rather a region of sky in which a number of variably, if weakly, active minor showers have their radiants.”
A sporadic meteor is any meteor that does not come from a known radiant.
Meteors enter the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed between 10 and 70 km/s, and burn up at an altitude of about 80 km. For a sight line perpendicular to the meteor’s path, the angular velocity should range between 7˚ and 41˚ per second. This means a meteor should cross the 17′ x 11′ field of my video camera in 0.03 seconds or less. Field traversal will take longer than this the closer the meteor is to its radiant or anti-radiant point.
The lowest stable altitude a satellite can orbit is about 200 km, where it will have an orbital velocity on the order of 8 km/s. This is slower than the slowest meteors. For a sight line perpendicular to the satellite’s path, the maximum angular velocity a satellite should have is about 2˚ per second.
Given these admittedly BOTEC calculations, one could reasonably conclude that if the object traverses the field in a single frame, it is probably a meteor. If not (and it is not an airplane), it is a satellite.
The object in the 8 May 2020 video does appear to be moving slow enough to be a satellite, but because it is traveling much faster than satellites usually do it must be orbiting quite low, close to re-entry. I was not able to identify the satellite, which is often the case for the fastest-moving satellites. My camera is sensitive enough to pick up tiny pieces of space debris orbiting at low altitude, and though these objects are no doubt catalogued by military organizations, they do not generally show up in the publicly-available orbital element datasets for satellites.
This one’s unusual in that there are two distinct “flare-ups” along the path. It is reasonably good match to the antihelion radiant for 12 May 2020, and though I have seen meteors experiencing outbursts along their paths, a more likely explanation for this event is that it is low altitude satellite with two “sun glint” events. What do you think?
I was surprised to record so many meteors during the first half of 2020, as there is generally much less meteor activity between January and June than there is between July and December.
International Meteor Organization, 2o2o Meteor Shower Calendar, Jürgen Rendtel, ed. https://www.imo.net/files/meteor-shower/cal2020.pdf.