Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Catching A Falling Star


ESO PR Photo 22b/04 shows the spectrum of a bright meteor;; as observed serendipitously by the multi-mode FORS 1 instrument on the ESO Very Large Telescope during the night of May 12-13;; 2002;; in front of a photo of the VLT enclosures and with a meteor trail inserted in the sky (montage).

ESO’s Very Large Telescope Obtains Unique Spectrum of a Meteor
While observing a supernova in a distant galaxy with the FORS instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory (Chile), astronomers were incredibly lucky to obtain serendipitously a high quality spectrum of a very large meteor in the terrestrial atmosphere.

The VLT spectrograph provided a well calibrated spectrum, making it a reference in this field of research. From this spectrum, the temperature of the meteor trail was estimated to be about 4600 degrees centigrade.

The serendipitous spectrum reveals the telltale meteor emissions of oxygen and nitrogen atoms and nitrogen molecules. The VLT spectrum was the first to reveal the far red range where carbon emission lines are predicted; the absence of the lines puts constraints on the role of atmospheric chemistry when life started on earth.

Because the VLT is tuned to observe objects far out in space, it focuses at infinity. The meteor, being "only" 100 km above the telescope, therefore appears out of focus in the field of view.

Astronomers’ luck

A popular saying states that when you see a meteor, you may make a wish. While astronomers cannot promise that it will be realised, a team of astronomers [1] have indeed seen a dream come true! On May 12, 2002, they were lucky to record the spectrum of a bright meteor when it happened - by sheer chance and against all reasonable odds - to cross the narrow slit of the FORS1 instrument on the ESO Very Large Telescope.

At the time of this unlikely event, the telescope was performing a series of 20-minute spectroscopic exposures of a supernova in a distant galaxy in order to establish constraints on the dark energy content of the Universe (see e.g. ESO PR 21/98). Thanks to its enormous light-collecting and magnifying power, the VLT recorded the spectrum of the meteor trail perpendicular to its path on one of these exposures.

"We really hit the jackpot", says ESO astronomer Emmanuel Jehin: "Chances of capturing a meteor in the narrow slit of the FORS1 spectrograph are about as big as for me winning the national lottery."

Meteor spectra have on occasion been obtained serendipitously during photographic star spectra surveys. But this is now maybe the only meteor spectrum recorded with a large telescope and a modern spectrograph. The spectrum covers the wavelength range from 637 to 1050 nm, which is dominated by emissions from air atoms and molecules in the meteor path and teach us about the collision processes in the wake of a meteoroid.

The rapid motion of the meteor across the sky resulted in a very brief exposure while crossing the narrow spectrograph slit - only 1/50 of a millisecond! - and despite the relative brightness of the meteor it was only thanks to the VLT’s great light-gathering power that any record was procured. The meteor was estimated at magnitude -8, or nearly as bright as the first-quarter Moon.

Although it is not possible to be sure from which shower this meteor belongs, a possible candidate is the Southern May Ophiuchid shower which appears from a direction just east of the bright star Antares. The shower contributes only one or two meteors per hour but was one of the stronger showers of that night.

Telltale emissions

"At first, the bright trace across the supernova spectrum was a puzzle, but then I realized that the spectroscopic signature was that of our atmosphere being bombarded," says astronomer Remi Cabanac of the Catholic University of Santiago de Chile. "We asked around to see if others in our country had witnessed the meteor, but it seems we at the VLT were the only ones, perhaps not too surprising as Paranal is located in the middle of the empty desert." And unfortunately for the astronomers, the MASCOT all-sky camera (e.g. PR Photo 22a/04) was not yet in operation at that time.

The VLT spectrograph provided a well calibrated spectrum of the meteor emission, making it a reference in this field of research. The meteor emission results from collisions between air molecules, knocked to high speeds after initial collision with the meteoroid.

Closer inspection of the spectrum revealed about 20 telltale meteor emissions of oxygen and nitrogen atoms and nitrogen molecules (see PR Photo 22b/04 and 22c/04). The ratio of atomic and molecular emissions could be used as a "thermometer" to measure the conditions in the meteor-induced hot gas in the wake of the meteoroid, by means of laboratory measurements and meteor models that calibrate the VLT data.

From here to infinity

"To our surprise, we found the meteor trail to be wider than expected and also that the meteor’s heat appeared evenly distributed in the trail, with the temperature varying only from about 4,570 to 4,650 degrees across the trail," says meteor specialist, astronomer Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Intitute, who analysed the data together with Christophe Laux of the Ecole Centrale Paris (France) and Iain Boyd of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (USA). "We later realised that this was due to the fact that, as seen by the VLT, the meteor trail was out of focus, even though it was 100 kilometres away!"

The VLT is indeed focussed at infinity, which is perfect for most astronomical objects that it routinely observes. But not for meteoroids entering the atmosphere above Paranal. A point at 100 kilometres distance will appear as a small circle of diameter 15 arcsec at the VLT focal plane. This corresponds to roughly half of the maximum apparent diameter of Mars in the evening sky! It is the same effect as when you try to photograph your children with a forest in the background. If you focus your camera on the distant forest, then (in most cases) your children will be out of focus. Or to put this in another way, the VLT is clearly not very suited to observe ships passing by on the Pacific Ocean, just 12 km from Paranal!

No Trace of Carbon

The meteor spectrum also provided a first view of such an object in the near-infrared window between wavelengths 900 and 1050 nm. This spectral region contains relatively strong lines of atomic carbon, but no such emissions were detected.

"We calculated that these lines should have been visible if all atmospheric carbon dioxide in the meteor path was dissociated into carbon and oxygen atoms," says Jenniskens, "but they were conspicuously absent". This observation is important because it sets new constraints on the efficiency of meteor-induced atmospheric chemistry at the time when life began on our planet.

Appendix: Cosmic showers

Meteoroids are small grains of rocks orbiting the Sun. Far smaller than asteroids, they make their presence known to us in a dramatic and beautiful way when they enter earth’s atmosphere and burn up, producing a short glowing trail in the night sky, rarely lasting more than a second or two - a meteor. Most meteoroids are completely destroyed at altitudes between 80 and 110 km, but some of the bigger ones make it to the ground. Here they may be collected as meteorites.

Many meteoroids originate as fragments of asteroids and appear to be unaltered since the formation of the Solar System, some 4500 million years ago. Based on the peculiar composition of some meteorites, we know that a small fraction of meteoroids originate from the Moon, Mars or the large asteroid Vesta. They obviously result from major impacts on these bodies which blasted rock fragments into space. These fragments then orbit the Sun and may eventually collide with the Earth.

Comets are another important source of meteoroids and perhaps the most spectacular. After many visits near the Sun, a comet "dirty-snowball" nucleus of ice and dust decays and fragments, leaving a trail of meteoroids along its orbit. Some "meteoroid streams" cross the earth’s orbit and when our planet passes through them, some of these particles will enter the atmosphere. The outcome is a meteor shower - the most famous being the "Perseids" in the month of August [2] and the "Leonids" in November.

Thus, although meteors are referred to as "shooting" or "falling stars" in many languages, they are of a very different nature.

Richard West | alfa
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Comet or asteroid? Hubble discovers that a unique object is a binary
21.09.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

nachricht First users at European XFEL
21.09.2017 | European XFEL GmbH

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Highly precise wiring in the Cerebral Cortex

Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.

The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...

Im Focus: Tiny lasers from a gallery of whispers

New technique promises tunable laser devices

Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...

Im Focus: Ultrafast snapshots of relaxing electrons in solids

Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!

When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...

Im Focus: Quantum Sensors Decipher Magnetic Ordering in a New Semiconducting Material

For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.

Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...

Im Focus: Fast, convenient & standardized: New lab innovation for automated tissue engineering & drug

MBM ScienceBridge GmbH successfully negotiated a license agreement between University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG) and the biotech company Tissue Systems Holding GmbH about commercial use of a multi-well tissue plate for automated and reliable tissue engineering & drug testing.

MBM ScienceBridge GmbH successfully negotiated a license agreement between University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG) and the biotech company Tissue Systems...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

“Lasers in Composites Symposium” in Aachen – from Science to Application

19.09.2017 | Event News

I-ESA 2018 – Call for Papers

12.09.2017 | Event News

EMBO at Basel Life, a new conference on current and emerging life science research

06.09.2017 | Event News

Latest News

Comet or asteroid? Hubble discovers that a unique object is a binary

21.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Cnidarians remotely control bacteria

21.09.2017 | Life Sciences

Monitoring the heart's mitochondria to predict cardiac arrest?

21.09.2017 | Health and Medicine

More VideoLinks >>>