Why your Streak is (probably) NOT a Meteor

Satellite or Meteor? [C_061879] So you took our advice or perhaps the advice of someone more clever than us and have captured a streaking bit of flaming cosmic stuff that some people call shooting stars. We do not want to rain on your parade, but let’s first get something straight: that flaming streak is more properly called a METEOR.  If it hit the ground, it’s a meteorITE.  If it in fact struck YOU, well you’re a lucky one!  No one in recorded history has ever been directly struck by a meteor EVER. We know what you’re thinking (really, we do). You’re thinking, but dudes: “What about the German boy who was hit in the hand, or the lady who had one bounce off her furniture and hit her in the leg or the man who suffered a broken finger when one crashed through his windshield and bounced off his steering wheel.” Sorry those were METEORITES apparently you weren’t paying attention when we explained the difference between meteors and meteorites.  Did anyone ever find a meteor on the ground? NO THEY DIDN’T… they found a meteorITE. Are we harping? Sorry.

Here is the sad news. You probably DID NOT catch a meteor (or meteorite) in your photo. Terribly sorry to tell you that. Go ahead, bring the photo and plop it in front of us. Claim what you want… but we are skeptics. Below are some things to rule out before we will conclude you have indeed caught a meteor.

Why Are We Such “Meteor Haters”

Hey, don’t put words in our mouth. We LOVE meteors. We just don’t believe you caught one. And here is why.

  1. Meteors move VERY, VERY fast across the sky and therefore across your image.
  2. Only exceptionally bright meteors throw out enough light in their rapid transit to even  register on your sensor or film.
  3. Just because you SAW a meteor occur in the direction your camera was pointing when  it was taking a picture doesn’t mean it registered.
  4. And it probably wasn’t a meteor.
  5. Besides, we think you’re wrong. So there.

Ok, so we admit to being a bit sour about it. After all, collectively we have shot about 20,000 (TWENTY THOUSAND) frames trying to catch meteors. And how many did we get? About 100.  We didn’t get so few just because we suck at it.

Below the Belt [5_020853] CARMAic Visitor from Cygnus [5_034154]
Dew Drop In [C_019416] Chiplet [C_034134]

Perseus slays Little Bear, oh my! [B_032691]

Of those 100, about 20 are readily noticeable. Of those 20, perhaps 10 are well captured. And of those 10, sigh, only a few really stand out.   But perhaps we should admit that we – like you – didn’t make all of those attempts under the best conditions. No, Like you, we took most of our shots when there was moonlight, light pollution, streetlights, and other impediments and the result was as you see at the left here: the meteor is almost impossible to see.  Like you we’ve SEEN a lot of meteors. And like you, most of the time the meteor we saw was regrettably not where we had pointed our cameras.  It’s a game of (very low) odds, after all.

Why You Didn’t Catch a Meteor (or maybe you DID!)

So many times we have seen people post their “brilliant meteor shot”. Almost exactly as many times we noticed one or more of the following:

  1. There are tell-tale flashing white, green or red lights. The tale those lights are telling is “aircraft” but the gleeful meteor hunters have their fingers in their ears.  Look closely at your shot to see.
  2. The streak bends or changes direction and the curvature is not due to field warp (as with e.g. a fish-eye lens). Sorry, but only airplanes curve like that.
  3. The shot immediately before or the shot immediately after the prize has the continuation of the streak. There is a 0.000008% chance of capturing a single meteor that spans more than one frame.
  4. The shot was at low ISO (less than 400), a high f/stop (anything above f/4), a narrow field of view or for a very long time. For a meteor to register you’d need a super slow flaming fireball of a meteor. If in fact you got one, well good for you and we are jealous.
  5. After ruling out aircraft, most people fail to rule out the next most obvious possibilities: satellites, flare and moths.   Yep, moths or any other bug that might fly through a source of illumination. We’re pretty sure you’ll be able to tell if it was a firefly though. Satellites are a little sneakier. They can – and do appear, move through the sky and disappear.  And they can fade in and out, too.


There are MANY satellites in the sky. So many that we catch them ALL the time.  About every shot that doesn’t have a stinkin’ airplane seems to have a bloomin’ satellite in it.  Most satellites are quite dim and you don’t see them easily with the naked eye, however there are a few bright ones and one family of satellites that is EXTREMELY bright for a brief time.  We’ll get to that in a minute.

Meteors and Meteorites Have A Signature

Star Man and Perseus [C_059960-1]

Perseid Meteor, Milky Way and Galen’s Arch, Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California, August, 2012

Most meteor streaks have the following things in common:

  • They brighten rapidly and dim a bit more slowly.
  • They are asymmetric (the brightening phase and dimming phase rarely look exactly alike)
  • Because of the two things above, meteors streaks rarely, VERY rarely have nice round ends – generally one or both ends are tapered.
  • Often meteors are colored!  The Perseids, for example, are often green, the Orionids are often yellow.

Perseid meteor traveling from the lower left to upper right. Note the changes in brightness and color

About those Bright Satellites

Satellites seem to wink in and wink out because they are illuminated by sunlight.  You’ll rarely see a satellite at the (true) midnight hour because the earth prevents sunlight from striking the satellite. However for as much as 3 to 5 hours after sunset or before sunrise (and more at other elevations), a satellite may move quickly and stealthily out of the earth’s shadow into a place where it can be seen clearly against the dark sky.  Or it might do the opposite: streak across the sky and then wink out when it enters the earth’s shadow. But there is one spectacularly bright satellite. Sorry did we say one, we meant 90 of them!  The family of satellites named Iridium. The name Iridium refers to the planned 77 communication satellites – the atomic number for Iridium is, 77.  The Iridium satellites exist to service those big, bulky sat phones – about the only option you’ve got if you need phone service in the Bering Sea or on an ice shelf in Antarctica.

Satellite Flash (Iridium) [5_033852-4br]

Iridium and “Flares”

Because the Iridium satellites are highly polished, and because each of those 90 objects are circling the earth every 100 minutes or so at a relatively low orbit, it’s not at all unlikely that one will reflect the light of the sun toward you! If you happen to be in just the right spot the brightness is extreme.  How extreme? Astronomers use a stellar magnitude scale. On this scale the smaller the number, the brighter. The stars in the Big Dipper are around 3, the brightest star, Sirius, is -1.46; Venus, the brightest planet at its shiniest is -4.6 and the brightest Iridium flares are -9!  What this means is: Iridium flares can be more than 20 times brighter than Venus or about 400 times brighter than the brightest stars!

Iridium satellites move swiftly but nowhere near as fast as meteors so they are far more likely to leave a mark in your photo than a meteor. Iridium flares behave very predictably. They start dim, slowly grow brighter and then slowly fade all the while that they transit the sky. If you want to mess with someone, use an Iridium sighting tool, figure out when and where to look in the sky and tell people nearby: “I have this sense… that something strange is about to happen… right … up … there”.  If you time it well people will be so amazed they may fall down and worship you. Time it wrong and they will laugh. Either way it’s great fun.  [NOTE: That link will only work in MILPITAS, CA – you need to use your GPS location].

The thing is, however that your camera doesn’t know when the grand entrance is going to happen and it will dutifully record the event while you’re busy chatting with your fellow night denizens.

Meteor Radiant Point (Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower)
Unfortunately we ran out of space before we got a chance to explain to you that even your correctly identified meteor is probably incorrectly identified as a “Perseid Meteor”.

In summary, we TOLD YOU you didn’t catch a meteor!

But if you think you did and are willing to stand some public humiliation at being proved wrong, please post ONE alleged meteor shot below in the comments.  Please also give us the date, time, timezone and GPS location so we can make sure it wasn’t an Iridium Flare. Wait, why make us do that… do it yourself! The exposure information is important, too (length, f/stop, ISO, focal length).

Oh, one last thing… did you find this article interesting? Amusing? Alienating as hell?  Please share it!

What do you think about this?

  1. Cool thank you, appreciate your time, I checked the website for Iridium Flares however it seems to only cater to those in the U.S, so I can’t confirm whether or not this is the case.

  2. Great article, thanks!
    Have just started playing around with time-lapse and night photography and thought I’d try and capture something from the Lyrids Shower the other night. Saw plenty (despite the relatively bad light pollution) but only think I really photographed one – not even 100% now after reading this! It only appears in one exposure, and also seems to have the right shape? Please lend me your expertise!

    Nikon d7000, 25sec @ 2.8, iso 1600 (11mm)
    Looking South at 2.20am on the 23rd April, southwest UK
    50°33’50.0″N 3°38’55.2″W

    click for pic

  3. Hi! Last night I was shooting stars (I love saying that) and would love to hear your interpretation on this:


    From what I’ve read I believe the one on the right is your standard satellite, in the middle is an iridium satellite, and on the left is a Preseids meteor with the drawn out tail and multi colours.

    Why does the middle one have the flash in the middle?

    Nikon D7000
    Exposure 29 seconds at f/2.8
    ISO 3200
    Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 @11mm

    Taken south east of Swansey Peak, Utah (39.369556, -113.300434)

    The foreground is lit by a motion sensor light that gets pretty bright and if the middle object wasn’t so straight I’d be tempted to think it was a flying bug caught in the light.

    Thanks, in advance!


    • I think what you have there is definitely a meteor on the left (color change is the telltale sign), an Iridium flare in the middle, and another satellite on the right. Great shot, too.

      • Sweet! Thanks a million! And thanks for all the detail in this article – has really helped me understand what I’m capturing. I’m amazed at how many satellites are moving around out there. I ended up with a couple hundred photos from the weekend and at least a third have satellites of some sort.

  4. im pretty sure i have a meteor in this shot at the top right

    it doesnt appear there where any iridium satellites in the area
    taken at big bend national park
    29.2499°N, 103.2502°W
    facing east

    july 16th 2015 11:37pm
    iso 3200 f2.8 30 seconds
    16-28mm lens at 16mm

    • It looks symmetric like a typical Iridium flare, but hard to tell since short meteors also look like that. The tell-tale sign of a Perseid is color change, but I think you’ve processed out the color information.

      Here is an example I shot a few days ago:

      Celestial Slasher [C_224-9234]

  5. I really enjoyed your blog post and found it helpful. The first time I visited it, I thought I had a shooting star. Well, I’m new at night photography and after reading your blog I realized it was just a jet! I’ve since taken a lot more pictures of the night sky and last week I think I may have captured my first shooter! The GPS coordinates are:

    N 41 41.437
    W 079 15.277

    These are not the exact location. They are about 3 miles away by road, probably closer by straight line. Sorry, I do not have the exact coordinates. This was taken with a Sony RX100. 20 second shutter. 3200 ISO.

    I’m in the Eastern USA time zone. This was taken at approximately 3am. 9/12/2015 near the Allegheny National Forest in Warren, PA. Thanks for your time and for your informative blog!

    Here is the picture:


  6. Are we still posting links? I hope so — this has been a great resource for the explanation, but also folks pictures of meteors (and not) taken in different circumstances.


    Canon 6D, ISO 2000, 8s, f/2.8, 24mm, September 23, 2015, 5:37:00 AM PSDT, -7 UTC
    47.67, -122.27 Seattle, WA.

    I’m confident that I’m not looking at an airplane, bird, or insect, but am unsure of satellites.

    I see color (but processing might add color), and a little bit of asymmetry, and can’t find a Iridium satellite at Heavens Above at the time (though I’m not confident of my time zone calculations).

    So, I’m thinking meteor, but not with full confidence.

  7. Unknown sighting this morning, took video but i am unable to see it on my video due to quality of video but as i was watching with kids at busstop, clear skies at 7:16am EST, jan.06,2016,
    It struck me as somewhat odd, “not your typical airplane” sight, which caused me to not look away and keep watching this “plane” that was flying across sky, but oddly left a short (but long enough to make me notice and wonder)bright trail that stayed almost the exact length as it passed through sky… leaving absolutely no lingering smoke trail. I live near Richmond airport and it was too far/small to be a landing or nearby plane. I would have been able to see a visible plane body. I only saw what looked like a small bright lightball with a bright 1″+/- (obviously size is based on my visual site) trail behind flying object… not changing trail length or width size, direction, shape, and did NOT leave even a hint of a smoke trail, like a jet may make when flying. Im assuming it was very far away since it seemed to stay at a steady flying distance, wasnt going superfast, or super slow… just fast enough pace to see it was moving across sky in a slightly downward angle, and i had enough time to get out camera and film for a minute before it finally disappeared behind trees and such that obstructed my view any further .

    Im not saying it was NOT a plane, i just know it stood out to ME as being an abnormal sight, in early daylight, almost clear skies (skinny crescent moon was still easily visible in my far right visual in middle of sky, and visible in my video).

    Total time from when i noticed it in sky till it disappeared from my personal visual due to surrounding obstructions… was approximately 3-5 min?? Maybe less, i wasn’t timing it lol.

    And my eyes stare into the skies ALOT every day, since i tend to zone at all its beauty….

    For me, knowing the little i do about planes and/or astronomy…. but having a lifetime of visual knowledge on things im seeing, whether i know what it is or not…
    It was definitely odd enough for me to record, web research and post here LOL.

    Based on my mini novel i left (sorry lol)…

    Thanks for any info in advance. Whether it was a Plane, asteroid, UFO or superman, lol.. i at least enjoyed watching it and wondering 🙂

    Lisa Marie

    • Hard to say. You didn’t indicate what angle of the sky the object passed through or its direction of travel. As we note in the article, the Iridium satellites get extremely bright (brighter than Venus which CAN be seen in daylight) bright enough to be seen in twilight. But it wouldn’t leave a trail. Could also be a decaying bit of space junk, like the recent Russian rocket booster. Or could be Superman. According to my TV he’s battling Batman these days.

  8. I’m going to say that I am 112% sure that I saw a meteor tonight. I wasn’t looking for it. I was out on my porch and it just happened. It came out of basically nowhere, was light green/yellow and orange. It took about two minutes to pass. It didn’t just exit my visual horizon, it slowly dimmed away.

    It would have been around 11:00 PM in Layton, Utah on 07/27/2016.

    I have a picture, taken with the zoomed lense on my Samsung Galaxy S5.

    It was truly the most majestic thing I have ever seen and I want to undetsrand it more. Perhaps it wasn’t a meteor, but it was definitely not a plane or a satellite. It was far too large to be anything of that nature and it definitely dissipated slowly as it went across the sky. It had a distinct head and tail, with what appeared to be fire in between, which is not something you see with satellites or planes. Moreover, it took far too long to pass for me to believe it was just a spacecraft of any kind.

    I would love to share the photo, even at the risk of public humiliation, because I would love to know what it was. Unfortunately, I don’t see a way to upload a photo in the comments.

  9. Here’s a 2016 Perseid meteor taken the other night under woefully inadequate urban skies. Shot at ISO 400, 6s with a Rokinon 16mm f/2.0 lens. You can tell by the color and by tracking it directly back to the radiant that it’s a Perseid meteor. (Over 5 nights and nearly 6000 frames, I have *one* good photo of a meteor and this is it.)


    Regarding the exposure settings: yes I know. It’s an unfortunate compromise. The extreme light pollution rapidly overwhelms the short flash of a meteor with longer exposures, and shorter exposures will fill the memory card far too quickly.

    For comparison, here’s a 2015 Perseid shot with the same camera, same lens, ISO 3200, 15s, from a dark site. Zero processing required. It’s literally thousands of times easier.

  10. Hey there, I have been extremely skeptical about the possibility that I have caught a meteor but I really just can’t tell with these shots. Keep in mind they are shot at 11mm so they are fairly small looking but I would love some expert input on if these are meteors. They were both taken a couple days within the most recent perseid’s peak


    • I’m guessing you picked the sign to set the color balance… try instead picking the white line on the road that is not lit to get it more natural (and a lot less green). Looks like a meteor to me, but I think the trajectory is wrong to be a Perseid. Perseus should be out of the frame at the left, so the streak should be about parallel to the horizon if it’s a Perseid.