Is That A Meteor In Your Photo, Or Is That Piece Of Space Junk Just Happy To See You?

Look in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a frog. Or maybe even Underdog! But, sorry to disappoint, it’s probably not a meteor.

(Yes, there is such a thing as a flying dog. Those of you over 50 know what I’m talking about.)

After every meteor shower, excited photographers send me photos of the “meteors” they captured, and I see many more all over the Internet. I don’t like having to disappoint them, but the fact is that most of these light streaks are not meteors. Most are airplanes and a few of them are satellites. Sometimes I can’t identify them, but I know they aren’t meteors.

I saw so many non-meteors after the recent Perseid meteor shower, I thought I’d write a little guide on how to identify your night sky light streaks. First, let’s list all of the possibilities. And yes, this is ALL of the possibilities, considering that number 7 covers my butt. Fact is, sometimes I can’t identify the light streaks and have to put them in the UFO category.

  1. Airplane lights
  2. Satellites
  3. Space junk
  4. Birds
  5. Insects
  6. Baseballs
  7. UFOs
Airplane light trails

Light streaks from two airplanes shine in the sky above the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Airplanes

Most light streaks you see in the sky are from airplanes. Unless you are photographing from the South Pole, there is a possibility you’ll capture an airplane. (Commercial airplanes fly over the North Pole, but not the South Pole.) If the light streak shows intermittent lights, as from a flashing light source, you can bet it is an airplane. You might have to magnify the image to see the flashes. I’ve heard photographers claim that their light streak couldn’t be an airplane because the light is not flashing, but that is incorrect. Airplanes display steady lights as well as flashing lights. A characteristic of airplane lights is that the streak will be nearly uniform in size and usually in intensity throughout its path.

International Space Station

The International Space Station flys over Mount LeConte in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Satellites

If an airplane does not cause the light streak, the next most likely candidate is a satellite. Satellite flyovers and flashes are more common than most people realize. There is a good chance that one or more will occur on any given night at any location. Because the light streak is caused by sunlight reflecting off the satellite (no, you can’t see the lights inside the International Space Station), it is rare to see one in the middle of the night when the sun is blocked by Earth. Typically, you’ll see satellites within 3 hours of sunset and sunrise.

There are two kinds of satellite light streaks. One comes from sunlight reflecting from the unit’s surface as it orbits. This creates a nearly continuous and uniform light streak that is mostly the same intensity. The streak can be faint or surprisingly bright, as with flyovers from the International Space Station. The streak isn’t always uniform and continuous, however. The light sometimes begins or ends abruptly and the intensity can vary throughout the flight path.

Iridium flare at Cape Lookout Lighthouse

An Iridium flare flashes above Cape Lookout Lighthouse.

The other type of satellite streak comes from sunlight reflecting off the giant mirrors of Iridium satellites. Called “Iridium flares,” in a photo, these phenomena appear surprisingly similar to meteors, and anyone who isn’t familiar with them would automatically assume they were looking at a meteor. But there is a huge difference. An Iridium flare occurs over several seconds, beginning very faint and building to a very bright flash and ending in a tapered streak of gradually decreasing intensity. The brightening and fading period is usually mostly uniform. Iridium flares can last for a minute or more, which is impossible for a meteor.

First step in determining whether your streak is a satellite is to visit the Heavens-Above website and see if any were visible at the time and location from where you shot. But even if you don’t find any predictions, it doesn’t rule out satellites. (See the next entry on the list.)

Satellite streak

An unidentified satellite streaks through Orion.

Space Junk

Sad, but true, even space isn’t immune from littering. Several hundred thousand pieces of junk orbit our planet, ranging from paint flakes to spent rocket boosters and even larger components. (Remember Skylab?) When a piece of it reenters the atmosphere, it can produce e a light streak that looks just like a meteor.

Birds

Yes, birds. Hey, I once heard someone seriously claim that he had seen a mountain lion at the hotel where we were staying, even though mountain lions do not even live in that part of the country. It was house cat. A large one, admittedly, but a house cat. I have no doubt that a bird flying reasonably close to the camera could produce a streak that some people would confuse with a meteor.

Fireflies, meteor, and Milky Way

A meteor flashes across the sky while fireflies light up in the foreground.

Insects

I must be kidding now, right? Nope, and in fact, I’d bet that light streaks from insects are more common than streaks from birds. If you photograph a location that has streetlights nearby, there is a good chance that a moth could fly through the scene. If the street light illuminates it, it could produce a light streak that some might interpret as a meteor.

Also, I would not be surprised if fireflies have been misinterpreted as meteors. (Actually, nothing surprises me anymore.) A firefly flash will be bright yellow over its entire path. Some meteors could have a yellow tone, but it will be much less intense.

Baseballs

Okay, now I’m just being nuts, right? Wrong. I’m telling you, I’ve seen enough false identifications in photos that I’ve learned not to discount anything. If a batter hits one out of the ballpark and a photographer just happens to be shooting the night sky at the same time, well…

UFOs

I’m not talking about aliens, here. The term “UFO” simply means that you can’t identify whatever it is you’re looking at. I have a lot of UFOs in my photos. I’m sure most, if not all of them would fall into one of the above categories, but since I can’t say for sure, I won’t call it anything else in the photo caption.

Perseid meteors

Two Perseid meteors light up the sky beside the Milky Way.

Meteors—The Real Deal

Fortunately, meteors produce characteristic light streaks that are pretty easy to identity. First, they are fast. Really, really fast. If the streak you see lasts more than a second, it’s probably not a meteor. If you’re shooting continuous exposures, and the light streak shows up on two frames, it’s probably not a meteor.

Meteors usually start out faint, quickly build up to a light flash, and then fade out, all happening over a fraction of a second. Both ends of a meteor will be tapered, but they won’t be same. Meteors never produce uniform light streaks, although the very small and faint ones might appear so in photos.

Meteors are often colorful, as with the greens produced by the Perseids. They can also leave smoky trails that can linger for several seconds or even minutes for the really big ones. Iridium flares look a lot like meteors, but they are never colored and the tapered ends are much longer and more uniform. However, when space junk reenters the atmosphere, it can create flashes that are indistinguishable from meteors in a photo.

It’s probably NOT a meteor if:

  • The light is intermittent (Except for very large meteors that break up in flight.).
  • The streak is uniform in size.
  • The streak starts or ends abruptly, without tapering.
  • The flash is uniform in light intensity.
  • The brightening and fading is uniform.
  • The streak occurs on two or more frames.
  • The streak continues across the entire frame (Except when using a telescope or extreme telephoto lens).
  • The streak does not follow a straight line (Except, if using fisheye lens it could appear curved.)
  • You find bird poop on your camera.
  • Just before the streak occurs, you hear a loud POP and then you hear a crowd cheering.
  • The flash is bright yellow over the entire path.

It MIGHT be a meteor if:

  • The streak starts faintly, builds to a bright budge, and then fades, but the beginning and end do not have the same taper.
  • It is colored.
  • It leaves a smoky trail.
Big dipper, Venus, and a super hero

A Super Hero streaks across the night sky!

Oh, one more bit of scientific analysis. If the light streak in your photo appears to have paws and a tail, and is wearing a cape, it could simply be a super hero on a rescue mission.

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