Astronomers at ESO's frontline Paranal Observatory got a surprise on the morning of 18 December when looking at the observatory's all-sky camera, MASCOT. For about 45 minutes in the early morning, an object appeared first as a bright stripe then as a cloud that dissolved.
An unusual object was found on ESO Paranal MASCOT images in the morning of 18 December 2006. The whole sequence, seen above, shows how the object then takes the shape of a cloud that vanishes.
The discovery was made a little after 4 o'clock in the morning (7:00 GMT) by Christian Esparza, the operator of Antu, the first Unit Telescope (UT1) of ESO's Very Large Telescope who showed it to ESO astronomer Thomas Rivinius. Looking at the Mini All-Sky Cloud Observation Tool (MASCOT ), Esparza was surprised by the presence of a nebular object.
"I went outside to make sure this was not an optical effect," said Rivinius. "At the time I saw it, it had already taken the appearance of a cloud. In fact, it was as large and as bright as the Large Magellanic Cloud."
Having been convinced this was no fault on the camera, the astronomers went on a real detective chase to try to find out what the object could be. ESO's comet specialist Emmanuel Jehin quickly established that it could not be a meteor nor a comet. It was moving too slowly for a meteor - a meteor is seen for example on one of the images (see ESO PR Photo 48b/06) as a tenuous and fleeting streak - or for the International Space Station. Moreover, no other known satellite was supposed to pass above Cerro Paranal, in the Atacama Desert at that time. And why would the ISS or a satellite suddenly change shape from a bright point to a cloud?
Checking the Night Sky Live web site, the astronomers then found out that the same phenomenon had been observed with the all-sky camera located at the site of Gemini South at Cerro Pachon, also in Chile and 600 km south of Paranal. Using these observations and a simple triangulation technique used, for example, in land surveys, it was then possible to measure the distance of the object. It appeared that the object was about 6000 km high when first seen and about double that in the later images. The object was moving away from Earth at tremendous speed!
Given this close distance, an astronomical object seemed unlikely and the only remaining possibility left to the scientists was to consider if a rocket had been launched. And, eureka!, it was quickly discovered that the same morning, about one hour before the object was seen from Paranal, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) had launched a H-IIA rocket carrying the KIKU No. 8 (ETS-VIII) engineering test satellite, one of the largest geostationary satellites in the world.
The launch took place from the Tanegashima Space Center at 3:32 p.m. on December 18, 2006, Japan Standard Time (that is 3:32 a.m. Chilean time or 6:32 a.m. GMT). The launch vehicle flew smoothly, and, at 27 minutes and 35 seconds after lift-off, the KIKU No. 8 separation was confirmed. The Santiago station (in Chile) started receiving signals from the KIKU No. 8 at 4:27 a.m. Chilean Time.
Finally the mystery was solved: the object was most probably the 2nd stage of the launcher and the cloudy appearance at the end of the sequence most likely a dump of liquid fuel, made to avoid the explosion of the rocket in hundreds of scattered pieces, as a result of leftover fuel inside spent rocket stages. Having cracked the problem with his colleagues, Thomas Rivinius could finally go to sleep!
: MASCOT is the All-Sky Monitor of the Paranal Observatory. It delivers, every three minutes, images of the complete night-time sky, mainly to allow the detection of clouds.
Henri Boffin | alfa
UNH scientists help provide first-ever views of elusive energy explosion
16.11.2018 | University of New Hampshire
NASA keeps watch over space explosions
16.11.2018 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have captured a difficult-to-view singular event involving "magnetic reconnection"--the process by which sparse particles and energy around Earth collide producing a quick but mighty explosion--in the Earth's magnetotail, the magnetic environment that trails behind the planet.
Magnetic reconnection has remained a bit of a mystery to scientists. They know it exists and have documented the effects that the energy explosions can...
Biochips have been developed at TU Wien (Vienna), on which tissue can be produced and examined. This allows supplying the tissue with different substances in a very controlled way.
Cultivating human cells in the Petri dish is not a big challenge today. Producing artificial tissue, however, permeated by fine blood vessels, is a much more...
Faster and secure data communication: This is the goal of a new joint project involving physicists from the University of Würzburg. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research funds the project with 14.8 million euro.
In our digital world data security and secure communication are becoming more and more important. Quantum communication is a promising approach to achieve...
On Saturday, 10 November 2018, the research icebreaker Polarstern will leave its homeport of Bremerhaven, bound for Cape Town, South Africa.
When choosing materials to make something, trade-offs need to be made between a host of properties, such as thickness, stiffness and weight. Depending on the application in question, finding just the right balance is the difference between success and failure
Now, a team of Penn Engineers has demonstrated a new material they call "nanocardboard," an ultrathin equivalent of corrugated paper cardboard. A square...
09.11.2018 | Event News
06.11.2018 | Event News
23.10.2018 | Event News
16.11.2018 | Health and Medicine
16.11.2018 | Life Sciences
16.11.2018 | Life Sciences