Here's the interesting part in slow motion:
This collage was taken from the video and is used here with permission:
|Is this a meteorite in Dark Flight? Photo: Anders Helstrup / Dark Flight, photomontage: Hans Erik Foss Amundsen|
Looks like a real conundrum. Well, not really.
At first glance, it could actually be true. The hollywoodesque believe that meteorites fall burning and glowing to the ground is wrong - the visible meteor (the shooting star, that's what you see) terminates in the high atmosphere. For the last kilometers, meteorites fall like simple rocks to the ground. This is called "Dark Flight" and is very well explained in the Norwegian blog. No one has ever seen a meteorite in Dark Flight - and neither has the skydiver.
Why I'm so sure about that?
Because there are missing all of the essentials of a meteorite fall: no reports of a fireball, no sound, no seismic recordings. A meteorite of the size of the object in the video (which is unknown but can be assumed to be some centimeters perhaps) would not fall completely unnoticed.
More doubts swashed in. A respected meteorite expert informed that the object in the video looks much too bright to be a meteorite. Real meteorites usually have a deep black crust, a result of the initial fireball. This crust reflects very few light (it has a very low albedo) and thus should look much darker than the stone in the video, which reminded more like a mundane granite rock from Earth.
But how could a rock from Earth get up there falling onto the skydiver? Assuming there was no one else playing bad tricks, and the Norwegians tell the truth (which I believe that they do) the explanation is surprisingly simple: It was carried up there by themselves, unintentionally, in their own parachutes. I'm not a skydiver (and will never be) but others are, and one of them told that this scenario is far from being unlikely.
So how can we decide which story is true? How can one say with certainty that it was a meteorite or a mundane rock? Some smart people may now go into their math, calculate, triangulate, estimate descent angles and speeds. I'm not that smart and a bit lazy, too. I will employ some simple Logic instead, and put together those thoughts some clever people in my Twitter timeline and other social media deliver me.
We have two contradicting hypotheses: H1: The rock in the video is a meteorite from space, entering the atmosphere with several dozens kilometers per second. H2: The rock in the video is a common stone from Earth, that was entangled in the skydiver's canopy or parachute and just fell out when it opened. Lets see what speaks for each hypothesis.
H1: The rock was a meteorite.
1) If the rock was a meteorite, then there must have been a great fireball shortly before the event. If there was no bright flash visible shortly before the event, it can't have been a meteorite. Was there a bright fireball? NO
2) If the rock was a meteorite, then there must have been a loud sonic boom. If there was no audible roar or thunder shortly before the event, it's very unlikely to have been a meteorite. Was there a loud roar or thunder? NO
3) If the rock was a meteorite, then there should have been a fresh meteorite find in the area. A thorough search should have encountered it. Has there been a meteorite find? NO - after almost two years of searching.
4) If the rock was a meteorite, then it should look similar to typical meteorites, e.g. it's albedo should be very low, reflecting almost no light. Does it look like it had a very low albedo? NO
5) The plausibility of this hypothesis would rise significantly if there had been any similar incidents of meteors visible in dark flight (by other parachutists, aircraft pilots, etc.) in the past. Are there reports of similar incidents? NO - not to my knowledge.
That's five NOs, doesn't look too good for our meteorite, does it? Ok - a meteorite on the ground can be overlooked, a sonic boom overheard, a flash could have been obscured by clouds and invisible in daylight. The meteorite might have looked different on the tape than typical ones in a museum. But at least one of the NOs should be a Yes, to put any believe in this hypothesis, don't you think?
So let's look at H2: The rock was a mundane stone entangled in the parachute.
1) A normal rock lifted up by the skydiver himself would not have entered the atmosphere with speeds of kilometers per second, hence requires no bright meteor fireball. CHECK
2) A normal rock lifted up by the skydiver himself would not have entered the atmosphere with speeds of kilometers per second, hence requires no loud roar, thunder or boom. CHECK
3) A normal rock would not yield any positive find of a fresh meteorite in the area, no matter how thorough the search - because it would in no way differ from all the other rocks on Earth. CHECK
4) A normal rock would look like a normal rock on the video, e.g. show some shiny surfaces if it was a common piece of granite. CHECK
5) The plausibility of the object being a normal rock would rise significantly if there were reports of similar incidents of rocks falling out of parachutes or canopies. Are there reports of similar incidents? CHECK
Do with this whatever you like. I'll take Ockham's Razor and slice through it like a hot knife through butter: This rock came from Earth, not from Space.
I am well aware that these considerations do not prove anything nor rule out the possibility that it indeed was a meteorite. But for me they do suffice. If you do think that I'm wrong, then go out there and find the meteorite. Turn any of the red "NOs" into a green "CHECK". As long as you can't, the case is closed for me.
Really, do it. I like to be proven wrong. But remember: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. So far I haven't seen any evidence at all that supports the meteorite hypothesis!
It's not wise to discard a story just because it is very unlikely, but it would be foolish to prefer the unlikely explanation to a very much more probable one. With the thoughts outlined here, I wouldn't even have bothered to search for that stone.
***UPDATE: Marco Langbroek informed me of a second object, falling almost parallel to the first, somewhat more distant. Now what is that supposed to mean? Meteorites fall in groups if the initial body disintegrated in the fireball, but since there was no fireball (to our knowledge) is it best to assume the parachutes carried more than one stone?
|A second object (arrow) is visible in the video shortly before the alleged "meteorite". Click to embiggen. Hat tip to Marco Langbroek.|
UPDATE 3: Alessandro Patruno in turn tends more to the stone-from-parachute-version. If you still don't believe a small stone can be entangled in a parachute canopy, read his blog and the comments to it, or watch this!
UPDATE 4: Philip Metzger has performed another analysis of the stone's trajectory:
"Here is my conclusion: the ballistics are consistent with it being a small piece of gravel that came out of his parachute pack and flew past at close distance. The ballistics are also consistent with it being a large meteorite that flew past at about 12 to 18 meters distance. It could be either one, but IMO not anything in between. Based on the odds of parachute packing debris (common) versus meteorite personal flybys (extremely rare), and based on the timing (right after he opened his parachute), I vote for the parachute debris as the more likely."
Just what I think...
UPDATE 5: After taking into account more detailed analyses, Phil Plait reconsiders and no longer dismisses the rock-in-parachute theory. In fact, he says that it's the more probable explanation.
At the end of the day, it becomes clear that we'll probably never really know what the stone in the video was. But given the fact that nothing really supports the meteorite-hypothesis except our desire to have witnessed something extraordinary, the stone-in-parachute is the explanation we should settle with for now. Anything else would be unsound at this time.
UPDATE 6: Finally, the Norwegians have retracted the claim of a meteorite - and thank the international community for helping to solve this mystery!
(Disclaimer: I do not think at all that the video was faked, but this interpretation is too funny to spare...)
In retrospect, keeping the video a secret for two years before disclosing it to the public maybe wasn't such a good idea after all.