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It Is Too Early To Be Santa's Sleigh?

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It Is Too Early To Be Santa's Sleigh, Isn't It?


The European Southern Observatory (ESO) press release 48-06 is reproduced below:

ESO 48/06 - Press Photo

20 December 2006
For Immediate Release

It Is Too Early To Be Santa's Sleigh, Isn't It?

Flying Object Finally Identified


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 [1]), 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."

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ESO PR Photo 48a/06

An Unexpected Streak in a MASCOT image


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!


Note

[1]: 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.

Source: ESO Press Release pr-48-06

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It Is Too Early To Be Santa's Sleigh, Isn't It?

(Images to accompany the above story)

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ESO PR Photo 48a/06

An Unexpected Streak in a MASCOT image

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The Complete Path of the Object

An unusual object was found on MASCOT images in the morning of 18 December 2006. The image above shows one of the first images where the object appears as a bright streak. The whole sequence, seen above but also available as individual images or as an animated gif or quicktime movie, shows how the object then takes the shape of a cloud that vanishes. The same sequence, observed from Cerro Pachon, can also be seen. The images clearly show the Milky Way spreading out above Paranal and the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the Milky Way's satellite, in the lower middle part. A few prominent constellations, among which Orion, are also recognisable.

Here is a list of some other interesting features seen in these images:

  • In one frame close to the end of the sequence, a meteor shoots parallel to the Milky Way in the south-east quadrant
  • The sky is getting bright towards the eastern horizon due to the moon about to rise.
  • Harder to see, but also in that region is the zodiacal light coming up. The sequence was taken 07:00 to 08:00 GMT, and the astronomical night ended at 08:19
  • The constant "flickering" of the sky is the varying near-infrared OH sky emission. The camera sensitivity goes farther into the red than the human eye.
  • A few lonely clouds are seen passing as dark spots, e.g. in the north-western horizon, or towards the bright eastern horizon.
  • The Yepun (UT4) dome is seen turning and opening and closing its ventilation louvers to control the microclimate in the dome and keep turbulence low, thereby increasing image quality.
  • The closed dome, still empty, is to host soon the VLT Survey Telescope.
  • The steel tower is part of the meteorological site monitor equipment
_______________________________________________________________________________

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ESO PR Photo 48b/06

Meteor in a MASCOT image

Another image extracted from the MASCOT sequence obtained in the morning of 18 December 2006. A meteor is clearly visible as a faint trace in the middle right.

Source: ESO Press Release phot-48-06

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He's making test runs.

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He's making test runs.

Strapped to a Japanese rocket. :)

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