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.

Satellites

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!

95 thoughts on “Why your Streak is (probably) NOT a Meteor

  1. Steven Christenson

    By the way, there was some conjecture about whether the photo at the top of the article shows a Meteor or an Iridium flare. I did my homework and I think I ruled out an Iridium flare.

    Using HeavensAbove I tried to see if an Iridium flare was visible from the location at the proper date and time.

    Looks like the only flares were in the opposite direction and early in the morning. So apparently not an Iridium flare.

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson

      Mark: Just provide a link if you’re not sure how to fabricate the HTML.

      <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/steventheamusing/7922648280/” title=”Exit Strategy [C_040579+82] by Steven Christenson, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8308/7922648280_3284c18250_n.jpg” width=”320″ height=”220″ alt=”Exit Strategy [C_040579+82]”></a>

      The markup above is shown when you use the “share -> Grab the HTML” option on Flickr and produces this:

      Exit Strategy [C_040579+82]

      Reply
  2. Mark Grubaugh

    Thanks Steve! I took this image on Oct. 25, 2009 at 2:13 AM, Eastern Daylight Time, with a Canon Rebel XTi and a Canon 50 mm lens a f/1.8 ISO 1600 with a 25 second exposure. The telephone pole is approximately due East of my location (lat. 43.1094 N, 84.4466 W), according to Stellarium, the bright ‘star’ in the bottom of the frame should be Mars with the star Pollux above it. I think I took about 15 frames that morning and this is the only one that had any meteors in it (if that’s what they are). I count around 30 streaks and I do have the RAW file if you’d like. I’m curious of your take on this, as I’m not sure if they are meteors or not, don’t know what else they would be…Thanks!
    //www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=404234419639747&set=a.156084947788030.37875.100001595768902&type=1&theater

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson

      Clearly the thing in the middle is an airplane, as well as the thing below it. It is so extremely unlikely that you caught that many meteors in one shot that I’m guessing what really happened is that before the shot began or as it ended the camera was moved abruptly (e.g. by gusting wind).

      I’ve updated your comment to embed your image with a link to your FB page.

      Here is my analysis of your shot:

      Your next shot on your facebook page is quite clearly a meteor!

      Reply
  3. Mark Grubaugh

    Thanks for the analysis Steve, I appreciate it…. I find the image puzzling myself, camera shake is surely a possibility as I had the camera set on the window sill and I think I used the timer setting so I wouldn’t have to touch the camera. My thought was if it were camera shake that the streaks would have been connected to a star. Another thing that I didn’t understand was the difference in the airplanes trail length, I assumed it was possibly from a difference in the speed and distance of the aircraft, never thought it might actually be the same one…. You are the expert, and I will (grudgingly….lol) accept your analysis……Great, now I have to print a retraction on my FB page….(there could be up to a buck and a half in it for you if you want to change your mind Steve!?!?!) lol…. Thank you again for your time and input on this Steve.

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson

      Mark: I feel pretty sure about what I wrote. But let me address some of the good points you raised:

      “streaks would have been connected to a star”
      1. They might be. But a quick movement followed by a slow movement would produce what I’m seeing. E.g. Set the camera down and it slowly slides then lurches and stops. During the “lurch” it will move so fast not much will recorded (just like with meteors). *** I notice ALL of the streaks in your shot have the same pattern: bright blob, small gap, bright blob, large gap, long blob, long tail.

      2. The apparent meteors are clearly produced by the brightest stars. If you’re really motivated you can find all the streaks and use their positions and relative brightness to reverse engineer which stars created the streaks!

      *** I just had a brilliant idea. To demonstrate how difficult it is to catch meteors one can take a 5 second exposure of the stars and simultaneously move the camera at a speed of about 15 degrees a second (about the speed of a typical meteor). The streaks you’d get are roughly what meteors that are just as bright as the stars would do.

      PS, my friends call me Steven.

      Reply
  4. Mark Grubaugh

    Interesting Steven, I also wonder about mirror ‘slap’? Pretty sure I didn’t have it locked up. I think all your points are valid and correct as these streaks didn’t look like any other meteors or Iridium flares that I have seen. I do have another night image that I took, everything looks in focus but a yard light in the background has a very erratic trail to it…Ah the wonders of photography! Thanks again for all your input and keep up the great work Steven! I look forward to learning a lot from you and your experience.

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson

      Mirror slap settles too quickly to cause the artifacts in question – and if it were the cause, you’d have these artifacts in many more shots. Mount the camera on a solid tripod and you should be good.

      Reply
  5. Pingback: Constellation Changes

  6. Bill Stern

    Hi Steven
    I’ve been trying to get a shot of a Leonid and got a really nice one but this one…
    http://sphotos-a.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/378789_378233928931463_604894499_n.jpg
    seems so long. I think it’s too long for a satellite but don’t know if meteor streaks can be this long either. I think the streak is at least 50 degrees. It was taken with an OM-D 12mm lens (equiv to 24mm on a 35mm camera) f/3.5 ISO=6400 15 second exposure at Coramba NSW, 30.1986°S, 152.9972°E
    at 3.13am 20 Nov 2012 EDT which was Monday, 19 November 2012 at 16:13 UTC.
    what do you think?
    This is the one I’m confident about…
    http://sphotos-e.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-ash3/18259_378239132264276_1881107041_n.jpg
    which was taken with an OM-D 12mm f3.5 6400 ISO 15 seconds at Coramba, 30.1986°S, 152.9972°E
    at 2.56am 21 Nov 2012 EDT which was Tuesday, 20 November 2012 at 15:56 UTC.
    thanks
    Bill

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson

      Bill, the first path looks to me like it’s dotted – as it would be for a blinking airplane. However there is no reason why a satellite can’t traverse the entire sky, especially in a north-south direction and remain sunlit the entire time except perhaps for 3 hours either side of midnight.

      I agree that the second one has all the hallmarks of a meteor. Color change, ramp-in-ramp out. Great capture! Congratulations.

      Reply
      1. Bill Stern

        Thanks Steven
        Yes I see the dotting now. I guess a plane is the best explanation. I suppose where it fades in or out at the bottom of the picture is just the non blinking light pointing away from the camera. This was taken at 3.13 am (daylight saving time so a couple of hours after local real midnight).
        Can a satellite really traverse this far in 15 seconds? I did some rough (and possibly incorrect) calculations and found that at this speed it would be well within the atmosphere – I assumed a circular orbit and the path near zenith.
        thanks again

        Reply
        1. Steven Christenson

          Sorry, I didn’t catch that it was a 15 second exposure! It’s unlikely to be anything except a meteor or plane. And it would probably need to be a fast plane flying low, so looks like the first one is more likely a meteor, too.

          Reply
  7. Sergey Konozenko

    Hello Steven,

    I just stumbled on your treasure throve of information (site) coming from MeetUp.com. I could not believe what a great job you are doing here!

    I live in the bay area so I might show up on one of your meet ups eventually.

    I was wondering what would you say what kind of light streaks I’ve captured a couple of week ago. Of course me and my wife immediately screamed “a meteor!” when we saw this on the LCD as soon as the picture number 2 was taken. We haven’t seen the source of those light streaks in the sky with our own eyes – we only saw them post-capture.

    So, this is Dante’s View in Death Valley couple of hours after sunset on Nov 24th right after 7pm. All taken with a fish-eye lens with f/3,5 aperture, ISO 1600.

    http://skonozenko.smugmug.com/Nature/Star-Skies/26960021_27Mnm5

    In the first image I’ve circled a faint light streak or two. Exposure time was 31 sec at 7:07pm. The second image has the most prominent streak and exposure was 39 sec at 7:09pm. The third image has two streaks and was taken at 7:11pm with 46 sec exposure. The fourth has two smaller streaks along thew same locations as the third. Taken at 7:13pm for 46 sec.

    I was doing night sky photography for the first time on my own and the exposures could be explained by using a “Live Time Exposure” feature on my Olympus EM-5.

    Thanks a lot!
    Sergey

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson

      Thank you for your praise, Sergey. The second photo and this photo and the following one are clearly the track of a single airplane complete with flashing red dots.

      I’m glad you circled this one as it’s quite faint. I would encourage you to check HeavensAbove to see if it might have been a faint satellite which is what my guess would be because the trail is short and uniform.

      I also hope you recognized that you captured the Milky Way in your shot. It might have been a lot more impressive were it not for the nearly full moon. But without the moon, your foreground would not have been so well lit. By the way I’ve never been to Dante’s View, so thanks for the peak at night time.

      Reply
      1. Sergey Konozenko

        Thank you Steven!

        You are right, almost full moon. I have actually darkened the image just to make it more natural. (I showed you originals with no adjustments besides Lightroom’s defaults). Will try to use your “nudge” trick as well as making sure the red dots disappear as well as advice to making stars more prominent.

        I am surprised you’ve never been at that spectacular spot. We’ve been there several times while we lived only less than two years in California ;). Sunsets and especially sunrises are unbelievably beautiful there. To tease you a bit, here is a link to my wife’s blog post about that day: http://rider3099.livejournal.com/69524.html

        It is in Russian but you can try Google Translate for a half-acceptable English variant.

        Thanks again!
        Sergey

        Reply
        1. Steven Christenson

          In three trips I’ve been all over Death Valley, but still not everywhere… the place is HUGE. I haven’t been to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, or Bad Water either! But I have been to: Eureka Dunes, Father Crowley Point, Mosaic Canyon, Scotty’s Castle, Furnace Creek, Ubehebee Crater, Racetrack Playa, Darwin Falls, Artists Drive, Zabriskie Point (on my top 10 most beautiful places I’ve ever been), Hunter Mountain Road, Saline Valley Road… I was really shocked by Hunter Mountain… lush and green, forested and loaded with water. Not at all what I expected! Fortunately you need a high clearance vehicle to get there. But I’m completely off topic now…

          Reply
          1. Sergey Konozenko

            Interesting… I will definitely have to check Hunter Mountain Road and some other places, thank you! I am planning to go back around April as locals claim they had “a lot of rain” this season so they expect wild flowers. Thinking of spending a couple of nights both at Racetrack and Eureka dunes as we had only short visits there.

    1. Steven Christenson

      Do you manually look at each photo to find meteors? I’ve been trying to find some software to automate the process. In theory it shouldn’t be too hard. I did see where someone had a specific plugin for an expensive astronomy processing program – but it didn’t seem to work for me.

      Reply
      1. Mike Lewinski

        Yes. In the beginning it didn’t occur to me to analyze them shot by shot, but I was mostly interested in capturing a persistent ion train in the compiled time lapse. Now part of my morning ritual is having coffee and reviewing everything I captured overnight by hand. It prompts me to pick out other interesting stills and share them and now I like it.

        I’ve wanted to learn how to analyze images in the past and have some nominal perl scripting skills I could build on (but it is not the best language for it). I had a webcam at my home in the mountains 10 years ago that I used to watch for forest fires while at work. Clouds, fog, pollen and blowing snow all look enough like smoke in a single still image that I just didn’t even bother trying to learn the skills because I couldn’t imagine avoiding so many false positives. At one point I recorded a time lapse of a fire that was started by a lightning that which smoldered for two days before I happened to notice the smoke on the third day’s time lapse. I went back later and looked and sure enough it was there, just too faint to notice unless you really looked.

        I was staring at an image of a small meteor today that also had three airplanes in it. I was struck by the fact that it was longer than the airplanes even though they were at varying distances from near overhead to far out on the horizon. Really long streaks are a pretty good giveaways and it shouldn’t be hard to write something to sift through and pick out likely candidates. I average about 1800 exposures at 25 seconds right now, and probably only 10% of them really need human review to make the call. Maybe I could cut the time down, but it isn’t onerous enough to really justify it.

        I added up the total of what I’ve recorded today. It would take over 6 hours to watch the time lapse movies that I’ve made in 2012 (including many made in the daytime). A more appropriate task for my perl skills that I’m contemplating is sifting through the archived stills to come up with a figure for how much actual time I compressed.

        Reply
  8. Donna at Starview

    I was watching for Geminids last night and just taking random shots in the hopes of catching a meteor. After looking through all of my photos, I found plenty of airplanes (even though I tried to avoid them), and only one questionable “streak” in a photo of Jupiter, Taurus, and the Pleiades.

    I checked for Iridium flares and other visible satellites, and the only thing I can find in the area at the time is the Cosmos 1842 satellite, though it looks to be going in a different direction (using Heavens Above info).

    Date was December 14, 2012, time approximately 18:18 EST. GPS location is 40.0967°N, 77.7937°W, around 800 ft in elevation – camera was facing east. Taken with a Canon T2i, 18mm, ISO 1600, f/4.5, 30-second exposure.

    Here’s a link to the photo; I have a larger version if needed. The three red streaks at the bottom are obviously airplanes (taken before I started making a conscious effort to avoid them); the one in question is faint and marked with the arrow.

    Thanks for your help!

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson

      Donna, It’s fun trying isn’t it! The streak is pretty faint, so it’s hard to tell if it has the normal “entry and exit” behavior. If it is a meteor it can’t be a Geminid because the path is wrong. The constellation Gemini would be out of the frame to the left (and possibly below the horizon) so a meteor from Gemini would be moving left to right and slightly upward. But don’t let that daunt you, because on my first night I caught 3 meteors and only one was a Geminid.

      I don’t see any reason to believe your streak is anything other than a meteor, however that early in the evening is is highly likely to be a satellite. Did you check the shots before and afterward (assuming you were taking them continuously)? If you notice the extension of the same streak, it would be almost conclusively a satellite.

      As for airplane traffic… I have two solutions for that: 1. Shoot well after midnight when there is less air traffic – depending on your location, and 2. Shoot near a restricted airspace.

      Good luck!

      Reply
  9. nathan

    Hello Steve. my name is Nathan. I hope you can answser this question. On the same day the meteor hit Russia last month, my wife and I were traveling east in the early morning through New Mexico from California. in the distance we saw 6 or 8 of what looked like chem trails. Some were going up, down and sideways. Then they’d dissappear. Through our strong binocs we couldn’t make out a plane. To me there were too many in one area to be airplanes. Is it possible these were airplanes? in california at the same time a family member saw almost the same thing. thank you.

    natyon@verizon.net

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson

      Without an image to look at it’s hard to guess what you’re describing. However seeing “multiple” anything related to meteors is highly unlikely unless a large meteor fragmented – and if that happened you wouldn’t be seeing many different paths of travel. Contrails (water vapor from jet engine exhaustO can remain in the atmosphere and be lit for quite a long time… and sometimes they quickly fade. In a fashion comet PanSTARRS is exactly analogous to a jet contrail… albeit it has a tail over 810,000 MILES long.

      You don’t say how fast they were moving or what time of night it was. But there are MANY satellites that easy to see in late evening or early morning hours. See Heavens-Above.

      Reply
  10. Marsha

    Hi Steven – I recently posted a photo on flickr in which I thought I had a meteor. I actually saw the “meteor” streak across the sky as I was exposing. Because the exposure was long for a meteor (exposing for foreground), I didn’t even think it would show. It did and I was ecstatic. The original image has just barely the faintist of green, which I attributed to the long exposure. However I received a comment that made me wonder if what I really saw was a meteor. I remembered this blog and came back to re-read. Care to take a look? Thanks.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/mkirschbaum/8570097471/in/photostream/

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson

      That looks like an Iridium flare. Until I looked closer and I notice the brightening and dimming isn’t “regular” as an Iridium flare is. And you’re right it does seem to show slight change in coloration. Meteor is what I’d say. And a lovely shot as well.

      Reply
      1. marsha

        Thank you very much for looking into this for me. I tried to use the link above in HeavensAbove, but it appears that the page has moved. I wanted to try and see if there were any Iridium Satellites out at that time and location. Thanks again.

        Reply
          1. marsha

            Thank you. I was able to enter the data needed by the site, and confirmed that there were no iridium satellites in the area at the time the picture was taken. Woohoo! Also thanks for all of the information in this blog.

  11. Marsha

    Hi Steven — if you have time . . .I posted an image on flickr
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/mkirschbaum/8728564041/in/photostream
    with two almost parallel streaks between the mountain peaks that at first I thought were airplanes (but on closer exam, they looked awfully smooth for aircraft); then thought about iridium flares, and checked Heavens Above, but the only iridium flares showing in that area were at 5:37 p.m.; this was shot at 22:18 on 5/2. The image before and after did not show these two lines, but they were taken 150 seconds apart. The one image after, however did show the tail end of the plane (vertical line) disappearing behind the mountain. Could I have gotten so lucky as to have gotten two meteors? BTW this the coordinates of the location
    38.698707,-119.979436

    P.S. Thanks for reading . . . and maybe looking if you have the time. Maybe it’s just that I like playing these little games to prove I am human that I don’t get everything in the first post )

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson

      I replied on the image. It looks like satellites to me. I’m heavily influenced by the number of Satellites I recently caught in the pre-dawn hours in Yosemite, however. That timelapse is uploading to Flickr as I type this.

      Reply
        1. Steven Christenson Post author

          Stan/Bob: That’s most certainly a meteor. Not only is it along the Milky Way which is common for both the Kappa Cynid and the Perseid Meteors, but it has the green coloration common of Perseid meteors.

          Reply
  12. Leandro

    Hi Steven,

    I was aware of the difference between meteors and satellites and how to distinguish them in pictures, but I didn’t know about the distinctive mark iridums leave on the sky. I mean, I always thought those were meteors as well. Luckily not anymore 🙂

    That said, I’d like you to take a look at this picture, please.

    I shot that a few weeks ago during the Lyrids meteor shower. After reading your article I’m not sure all the streaks I caught are meteors because they go in different directions. I mean, is that possible?

    I already checked Heavens Above but I have my doubts because of the warning in red in that page about the past date.

    Date of shooting: April 18, from 20:43 pm to April 19 12:37 am. Other information in HA link.

    Thank you!

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      Ah, you’ve asked another question… are they Lyrids? Not every meteor you catch is a part of the particular shower that is occurring. Spontaneously about 6 meteors per hour occur regardless of shower activity and are unrelated to any known meteor shower. I don’t know if the image you’ve displayed is a composite or not (I presume so because you’ve stated a 5-hour range for shooting), and I can’t locate Lyra in the sky so I can’t confirm if any of the streaks are indeed Lyrid meteors. The way you can tell is by tracing them backward in the sky to be sure they “point” to Lyra. Unfortunately at the size available I can’t really tell much more. I can tell you that satellites often occur in pairs or even triples. Finally, if you didn’t correct your composite image for sky rotation, then the streaks you do have will appear to be a chaotic mess even if they are all from the same meteor shower. In other words, it would be easier for me to look at three different shots than one composite to make the determination.

      I do like the image, though. It makes me a bit jealous because we were “clouded out” on the East Coast and had no chance.

      Reply
      1. Leandro

        Yes, you are correct, it is a composite. I’m not so good at locating stars in the sky yet, but I checked Stellarium and it said Lyra would be there so I pointed my camera that direction. I also did not correct the images for earth’s rotation.

        I sent you by email a zip file with 4 pictures so you can take a look at them. I’m not putting that here because I’m not comfortable posting my pictures in big sizes on the Internet. Hope that’s okay.

        Reply
        1. Steven Christenson Post author

          The files you sent aren’t much larger so I can’t tell more. It is quite odd, however that one of the images has 3 separate trails in it all at once. 3 unrelated meteors in the same 20 to 30 second interval is unlikely, especially so bright. They are unrelated since they have taken different paths – that is, have no apparent common radiant. The largest streak does appear to be a meteor. I also definitely spotted what looks like a portion of a satellite trail.

          Reply
  13. Matthew Durr

    Okay, now my interest is piqued (fun article, by the way!). I made this 66-minute exposure during the Camelopardalid shower on May 24: https://matthewdurrphotography.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/dsc01955-4.jpg

    The camera was facing north at ISO 100, f/5.6, 32mm, and the exposure between 3-4 a.m.
    I would love to believe it’s a long and bright meteor, but it is such a long exposure. I do not see any flashing lights (even at 100% on my screen at 24MP), and it looks awfully long for a satellite trail.

    Thoughts?

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      There’s no reason a long streak can’t be a meteor. But I’d bet what you have there is a satellite.

      By the way, those settings (ISO 100 f/5.6) pretty much guarantee that the only meteor you’ll catch is a brilliant fireball of a meteor. See the article.

      Reply
      1. Matthew Durr

        Darn, I feared that. Still surprised a satellite put off that much light during this long an exposure (and at the aperture/ISO settings). Thanks for looking man.

        Reply
        1. Steven Christenson Post author

          Satellites don’t EMIT light – at least not enough to matter but they do *reflect* sunlight. Satellite brightness has to do with it’s size, nearness to earth and reflectivity. Iridium flares (as discussed in the article) can be 20 times brighter than Venus! If you’ve seen photos of the ISS passing you’ll know that it can be VERY bright.

          Come 'Round Again

          Reply
  14. Jeff

    Hi Steven,

    Enjoyed the article. Thank you for taking the time to write it. If you have time, please take a look at my photo (link) below.

    http://jeffpieri.smugmug.com/Meteor/i-spvm4qc/0/X3/IMG_0079-X3.jpg

    Date – 5/23/2014
    Time – about 11:40pm
    Timezone – Pacific
    GPS location – 37.619734, -119.001484 (Mammoth, CA)

    My 1st attempt at capturing a meteor. This is a 30 second exposure, f/ 2.8, ISO 1600, 11 mm (11-16mm). I captured 101 photos and this was (in my opinion) the most promising. The sky was clear for the 1st hour, then (as you can see in the photo) the clouds started to roll in and I had to shut it down.

    Finger crossed… jeff

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      That streak has all the hallmarks of a meteor. It’s asymmetric – so not likely a satellite flare (e.g. iridium), and seems to have some color – satellites only exhibit color if they are VERY low in the atmosphere. I think I spot Polaris and Ursa Minor in the clouds at the left and a bit of the Milky Way near Cassiopeia. While I think it’s a meteor, it’s trajectory seems wrong to be a Camelopardalid. Camelopardalis is to the left and below Polaris and the streak doesn’t point that direction which it must to be a Camelopardalid. In summary, looks like a meteor, so congratulations on that!

      Reply
      1. Jeff

        RAD! Thank you, Steven.

        I uploaded one more candidate, though my hopes are not high (not much color), JIC you had time to review another. I also uploaded the 1st picture from that night for reference (no clouds & lots of planes). I have about 5 other frames that have very faint streaks.

        2nd candidate – http://jeffpieri.smugmug.com/Meteor/i-BNPFsz7/0/X3/IMG_0063-X3.jpg
        Reference image – http://jeffpieri.smugmug.com/Meteor/i-8jn7GCk/0/X3/IMG_9982-X3.jpg

        Thank you again for looking at my early picture. – jeff

        Reply
  15. Jeff

    I say yes, I got lucky a caught a 2nd meteor. I believe it is asymmetric, however so little color does concern me. – jeff

    Reply
  16. Johnny

    Hi Steven,

    I came across your website when searching “difference between Satellite Trail and Meteor Trail”.. I started taking night photography since a couple years ago, and fell in love with it. I just went out a couple nights ago giving myself a shot at capturing Geminid Meteor Shower, and I have this photo in question: (1 Streak)

    https://flic.kr/p/qovPZb

    A year ago, I went to Cherry Spring State Park just to see Milky Way with my naked eyes during Perseid Meteor Shower, and I captured this Photo: (2 Streaks, obvious one on the right, and there is a very fainted one in the middle on the top 1/4 of the photo)

    https://flic.kr/p/qqCo9n

    I also told my friends that I have captured milky way with a meteor flying by. But before I speak anymore, I would like you to point out if it is really a meteor or something else.

    Thanks in advanced Steven! I appreciates your help.

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      The first image definitely looks like a meteor. I’m doubtful about the second one. It doesn’t have the hallmarks of a meteor (gradual increase and decrease in brightness, for example). It’s also appears to have the wrong trajectory to be a Perseid meteor.

      Reply
      1. Johnny

        Thank you very much Steven! and thanks again for posting this useful blog for us to read and learn. I use to wonder why I see far more meteor fly-by with my naked eyes than in all of my photos too…Anyway! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you!

        Reply
  17. ne1up (@ne1up)

    I love this website. 🙂

    I caught an Orionid meteor during the shower a couple (?) months ago. I have two versions of this image, the original 8 to 13 second exposure, and this is obviously the blended one I ended up with when I stacked all the images I’d taken.

    The timing was incredibly lucky. We only had clear skies between clouds for about an hour and a half, and was pointed in the right direction (with the shutter open thankfully) when we saw it. Surprisingly my brother also caught it on his Canon PowerShot A590. i was using my Canon EOS M and the f2/22mm lens.

    Nothing special, just a new guy with my first ever camera. 🙂

    Reply
  18. Ben Kent-Fiebig

    Not sure if you are still active on this thread or not. But captured something weird that neither friends nor myself can figure out. Excuse the long story but am trying not to miss details….
    I’m not claiming this is a meteor, nor am I planning on framing the photo and putting it on my wall, I’m just hoping for an explanation…
    Main problem with the photo and probably why you won’t bother trying to figure out what I’ve photographed, I got distracted by TV so left camera for about 20 minutes without blasting with the hair dryer so the lens is fairly fogged up….
    The below images are some of a few hundred I got tonight and though I got the regular satellites etc. there is nothing in any of the other photos like this, nor in any of the 5000+ photos I have taken at night (probably because I don’t usually let me lens fog up)…. The time between exposures is very minimal, less than half a second but I can’t tell you more accurately.
    It goes across 3 exposures all on the same settings:
    Canon EOS 400D
    18mm lens
    ISO:3000
    F 3.5
    30 seconds
    New Zealand
    Lat: 40.7127837
    Long: -74.00594130000002
    8.10pm
    Nearest identifiable constellation being Crux.
    I have raw images but linking the the jpegs on facebook seems easiest option currently.
    https://www.facebook.com/benkentfiebig/posts/10153206209656605?comment_id=10153206291221605&offset=0&total_comments=20&notif_t=feed_comment

    Reply
    1. Steven Christenson Post author

      When you say “goes across all three exposures” that’s a clue that it’s not a meteor (except perhaps if it is the residual trail of a meteor). I took a look at the featured photo and what I see are two faint, parallel lines in one and bright streaks in the other two which are continuations. The likelihood of having two meteors appear together like that in one frame is very small. However, Iridium satellites often appear in pairs and behave like you’ve photographed.

      Reply

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