While filming an incredible view of Earth from space, an astronaut aboard the International Space Station (ISS) inadvertently captured a fireball on camera as it whizzed into the atmosphere off the coast of South Africa, above the Atlantic Ocean.
European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Paolo Nespoli shot the video on Nov. 5 as the ISS flew from a spot over the southern Atlantic Ocean toward Kazakhstan, orbiting about 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth. To spot the meteor in the image, look toward the top-right corner of the video.
With three meteor showers raining down on Earth this month, it's tough to say exactly which meteor shower this fireball belongs to. It may have come from the Taurid meteor shower, which peaked a few days later, on Nov. 10. It could also be an early Leonid — that meteor shower peaks this weekend, but it has been active all month long. And the Orionid meteor shower peaked in late October, but it will remain active through the end of November. [5 Amazing Fireballs Caught on Video]
Meteors are pieces of space rock — usually debris from comets or asteroids — that enter Earth's atmosphere at high speeds. Friction with the atmosphere produces heat that vaporizes the meteors, causing them to light up in the sky like "shooting stars." Sometimes, the meteors can splatter when they hit the atmosphere, causing a bright flash of light known as a fireball.
"Indeed it looks like a bright meteor, or fireball," Detlef Koschny, co-manager of the near-Earth object (NEO) segment of ESA's Space Situational Awareness program, said in a statement. "One can see the fireball illuminating the clouds from above, so it must have been close to them — and close to the Earth's limb. It also seems to show a little tail."
Though it certainly looks like a fireball, Koschny said there are other possibilities, such as a re-entering piece of orbiting space debris.
Rüdiger Jehn, another co-manager of ESA's NEO program, calculated that the object seemed to be moving "much faster than typical," entering the atmosphere at 40 kilometers per second, or about 89,500 mph. According to Jehn, that's twice as fast as a typical meteor, "but still in the observable range between 11 and 72 km/s" (approximately 24,600 to 161,000 mph).
Also visible in Nespoli's time-lapse video are plenty of clouds and thunderstorms, with blue flashes of lightning scattered across the view. A faint, yellow-orange airglow can be seen above the horizon. This faint emission of light comes from sodium atoms in the so-called sodium layer of the atmosphere, which is located 50 to 65 miles (80 to 105 kilometers) above Earth's surface.