So - were you looking up in the sky last night (12/10/2007) right after sundown and wondering what that huge bright "dustball" was? If so, you weren't alone - the abrupt appearance of this phenonmenon had astronomers all over the US and Europe in a buzz! Our guys at the SFAAA were no exception.
Manny and I were setting up for a night of photography out at our dark sky site when Manny noticed it just to the west of Cassiopeia. Thinking it was Comet Holmes, he pointed it out to me. Remembering that Holmes should still have been in Perseus (and also quite a bit dimmer than the object we were seeing) I was a little doubtful. It did look very much like a comet should, complete with a prominent "tail", and we observed it for few minutes through the binoculars until Fred called to ask if we could see it. We confirmed that not only could we see the "comet", but also that it was extremely large and bright. Fred surmised that it was not a comet since it had literally shown up only moments before. He thought that it must be an icy meteor of some kind that broke up in the upper atmosphere. Fred had been contacted by Don and Monroe, who were at the Broward County Library leading a public viewing session there. They were observing it through the telescopes they had brought to the event (mostly through an 8" SCT. Don later reported that they were also able to see a couple of "bright specks of light" immediately preceding and also within the object which were regularly variable in brightness with an occasional "flash" like a strobe light.
It turned out that the "object" was actually the results of a fuel dump from an Atlas V rocket that was launched from the Cape earlier in the afternoon carrying an NRO satellite on a secret mission. Here is the explanation as quoted from SpaceFlightNow.com.
"The spent Centaur upper stage for today's launch is creating a stunning view over Cape Canaveral right now. After successfully hauling its clandestine payload into orbit, the upper stage is dumping residual propellant overboard that creates a bright fan-shaped cloud in the night sky as the rocket flies overhead. This is a special treat adding to the beautiful liftoff witnessed nearly two hours ago."
The "bright specks" were almost certainly the spent boosters from the rocket. We're very pleased to have recieved permission to post an image of the event taken by our friend Mike Broussard of Maurice, Louisiana with his Canon 350XT DSLR through his TeleVue TV-85 refractor riding on his Orion Atlas mount.
Click on the image to launch the full sized copy of his image:
You might be asking why we didn't get any images of this event... to be honest, by the time Fred had me on the phone to ask if we were imaging it, we said no - at the time, we still thought it was a comet and as such we figured that we'd be able to image it all night. Besides, we had just barely started setting up. Once we realized that this was going to be a transient event I hustled as fast as I could to get set up to take a picture, but by the time I was ready the object had dimmed to the point where it couldn't be imaged. Bummer!
Some other links to news of this event: