Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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By
updated 3/31/2009 11:40:11 AM ET 2009-03-31T15:40:11

A brilliant fireball in the Virginia sky on Sunday was likely a natural meteor event and not the remnants of a Russian rocket, scientists now say, a reversal from yesterday's initial analysis.

On Monday, Geoff Chester of the U.S. Naval Observatory told SPACE.com that the loud boom and flash of light seen in the skies over Norfolk and Virginia Beach was likely the second stage of the Soyuz rocket that launched Expedition 19 to the International Space Station last Thursday.

However, U.S. Strategic Command has since reported that the rocket re-entered Earth's atmosphere near Taiwan, on the other side of the world, several hours after the reports of the fireball. So both its timing and entry location rule out the rocket as the explanation for the fireball.

"Well, we're all entitled to a 'mulligan' now and then, right," Chester wrote SPACE.com in an email, adding that he deferred Strategic Command. (A mulligan is a do-over in golf.)

"However, it is still a remarkable coincidence that a random rock would fall out of the sky along a path that is very similar to the ground-track of a decaying rocket body," Chester added. "But this is what makes science fun!"

The evidence now suggests, he said, that the loud boom and streak of light was created by a natural meteor, or bolide, burning up as it plummeted through Earth's atmosphere.

"I'm confident that this was a meteoric event," Bill Cooke of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama said this morning.

Sunday night light show
Residents of the areas around Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Va., began calling 911 Sunday night with reports of hearing a loud boom and seeing a streak of light that lit up the sky, according to news reports. Some said their houses shook.

The difficulty in distinguishing the cause of such a fireball lies in getting accurate reports with the right kinds of information.

"Most of the eyewitness accounts don't mention altitudes and azimuths. They just describe the light show," Chester explained.

Big and small meteor showersChester said he received "credible reports" from amateur astronomers that, when combined with the area from which reports of the fireball originated, "fit the ground-track of the rocket body with remarkable similarity."

"The only problem is that the time the rocket was predicted to pass over the area differs by some 10 minutes from the reported times that the fireball was seen," Chester said. The difference could be the result of an error in his prediction software or could be 'real,'" he said.

But, "based on the evidence I have at hand now, I have to lean more toward the 'natural' explanation," Chester said.

Space rocks the size of small cars plunge into Earth's atmosphere several times a year, typically burning up before reaching the ground. Most go unreported since they fall over uninhabited areas (our planet's surface is two-thirds ocean).

Investigation continues
Cooke agreed that tracing the fireball's source is tricky given the paucity of information available.

"It's very hard to do given only eyewitness accounts," Cooke said in a telephone interview. He plans to look at sound measurements (meteors make sounds below human hearing as they travel through the atmosphere) taken that could reveal the energy of the bolide and in turn give a rough estimate of its size.

Video of the object, if any surfaces, could also shed light on the trajectory of the fireball. Such video often comes from the dashboard cameras in police cars, Cooke said. "They're out that time of night, and the camera is always running."

But, he said, "It's going to be very hard to get more information" on the nature of the bolide.

Whether or not any fragments of the meteor might have made it to Earth's surface is uncertain. "Most bolides do not," Cooke said. "The atmosphere is very good at protecting us from falling rocks."

A few space rocks do occasionally make it to the surface though. In recent years, pieces of a bolide were found after a meteor event in western Canada, Chicago and Peekskill, NY, Cooke said. Fragments of a meteor that originated from an asteroid that blew up over the skies of Africa last October were also recovered in the Sudanese desert.

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