Great ball of fire: Fiery meteor wows Oklahoma and Texas

This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

Great balls of fire indeed.

Folks from Oklahoma City to Houston reported having seen a fireball shoot across the sky at about 8 p.m. Wednesday, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Astronomers said the fiery display was likely caused by a meteor or some other space matter hurtling through the atmosphere.

Texas observers blogged about the show and described it as a blue-green object trailing sparks.

In central Texas, Little River-Academy Police Chief Troy Hess said he had just pulled over a driver when he managed to capture video of the fireball from his cruiser.

"It kept getting bigger, and the color kept changing," he told the Austin American-Statesman.

No damage was reported from the fireball.

It was not clear whether any of the remnants fell to earth. Meteor sightings are common, with most burning up in the atmosphere and leaving scant debris, according to astronomers.

Anita Cochran, assistant director of the McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas, told the American-Statesman that Wednesday's fireball was most likely small space debris. 

"The rare case is when it is something big," she said.

"It looked like a sparkler, almost," Lisa Coleman, who lives outside College Station, Texas, told local TV station KBTX.

"There was just this huge meteor-like rock falling across the sky and I thought, 'Wow, that's really huge to be a shooting star,' but it lasted about 12 to 15 seconds and it had a sparkling, flaring tail," Coleman said.

Texas A&M astronomy professor Nicholas Suntzeff told KBTX the meteor was not as huge as it appeared -- probably only about the size of a fist. He attempted to dispel some other meteor myths.

"If they do hit the earth, they are not hot, they are cold. ... There is the fire around them, but ... the meteor itself remains cold," Suntzeff said. "It almost never produces a fire when it hits the earth."

Suntzeff said the type of meteor that residents spotted, likely a bolide meteor, is both bright and rare -- most people will probably never see one again in their lifetime.

"Usually it's just a fraction of a second; here it was like five seconds or so. Again, I've only seen a few of those in my life. I wish I'd seen it," he said.

Another odd fact about this week's fireball: The sighting occurred on the ninth anniversary of the space shuttle Columbia falling to earth over east Texas.

[For the Record, 1:05 p.m., Feb.3: An earlier version of this post -- and its headline -- referred to the meteor as a meteorite. A meteorite is a portion of a meteor that reaches the Earth intact.]

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Video: A Texas police officer's dashboard video camera caught a fiery meteorite streaking across the sky this week. Credit: YouTube



Scientists take bite of 'alien' space cloud that encompasses us

IBEX, an artist's rendering. IBEX has measured an alien space cloud.

Our solar system is adrift in an "alien" cloud, recent headlines have trumpeted. But that news is actually tens of thousands of years old. What's new is that NASA has, at long last, tapped into this interstellar wonder.

NASA's IBEX spacecraft (IBEX stands for Interstellar Boundary Explorer) is about the size of a bus tire, but it's performed a mighty task.

For the first time, IBEX has directly measured chemical elements of an "'alien' cloud that has blown into the solar system," said Eric Christian, an IBEX mission scientist at NASA. The agency reported its findings in a series of papers this week.

This so-called Local Cloud is a longtime visitor. It arrived, scientists believe, thousands upon thousands of years ago from a group of super-giant stars "found by looking back in the direction of the cloud's movement," Christian said Wednesday in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

"The space between stars is mostly empty, but there is gas there," Christian said.

"The denser parts of interstellar space are called clouds," he added. There are several clouds near our solar system, he said; we're at the edge of the Local Cloud.

But solar wind and the solar magnetic field effectively blew "a bubble" in this cloud -- a bubble in which we live -- so "almost everything we've measured before comes from the sun or the solar system."

Now we've bitten into that alien space cloud.

What NASA found by collecting gases directly from the cloud was "the same chemical elements ... found on Earth and in the sun and solar system, but the amount of each element [specifically the oxygen to neon ratio] was different than that in the solar system and different than the galaxy as a whole," Christian said.

But why is there less oxygen in the Local Cloud? Perhaps the oxygen has been caught by small particles of dust between the stars, maybe as water ice, he speculated. Or perhaps the super-giant stars from which the cloud appears to have originated are somehow different.

Understanding the Local Cloud will help us better understand that previously mentioned solar bubble -- our heliosphere -- which acts as a shield against harmful cosmic rays, Christian said, and may have affected the development of life on Earth.

"We need to understand the size and shape of this shield," which is affected by the speed of the inflowing interstellar wind, Christian said. IBEX, by the way, also measured this wind and showed that it was not as strong as previously thought.

"As we look for nearby solar systems," he added, "understanding our shield helps us understand the 'astrospheres' around other stars and whether it affects the habitability of planets in those nearby solar systems."

IBEX's measurements set the stage for more interstellar excitement.

In the next couple of years, Voyager 1 will pass out of the heliosphere, Christian said, "and become our first interstellar probe."

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Image: Artist's rendering of IBEX. Credit: NASA

 


Hopes are bright for Wednesday morning's Quadrantids meteor show

Meteor shower

Think the New Year's Eve fireworks you saw were special? They're about to get some competition from Mother Nature -- a spectacular meteor shower headed our way.

To see it, you can stay up really late tonight or get up really early tomorrow morning. That's when the  2012 Quadrantids meteor shower is expected to peak, according to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Although not as famous as the Perseids meteor shower, the Quadrantids shower will nonetheless offer up "excellent meteor observing" from about 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. local time (regardless of the time zone you're in), according to NASA.

Named after a now-extinct constellation, the shower is expected to produce 60 to 200 meteors per hour, with an average rate of about 100 each hour, according to NASA.

Meteor shower "viewing should be great over most of the country," Weather Channel meteorologist Mark Ressler told USA Today. Exceptions are potentially cloudy spots in the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes and parts of the Northeast.

The Quadrantids shower was first seen in 1825, NASA says. "Dynamical studies suggest that this body could very well be a piece of a comet which broke apart several centuries ago, and that the meteors you will see before dawn on Jan. 4 are the small debris from this fragmentation," according to the space agency's website. "After hundreds of years orbiting the sun, they will enter our atmosphere at 90,000 mph, burning up 50 miles above Earth's surface -- a fiery end to a long journey!"

Only the Northern Hemisphere will be able to see the Quadrantids meteor show, NASA says.

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Photo: Leonid meteor shower in 2001 from Joshua Tree National Park. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times


Stories that grabbed us in 2011: Rogues, thieves, porn and more

Arnold_and_Maria
A philandering governor. An inmate, an ex-girlfriend and an accusation of rape. A sprawling hodgepodge of buildings that has neighbors up in arms. And an earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands.

Stories on these topics were the most-read of the year at latimes.com.

But before we get to the headlines that made us cheer, jeer and tear up, take a moment to slap yourself on the back, dear readers. It seems that media pundits are constantly wringing their hands and lamenting the state of long-form journalism, or complaining about the public's seemingly insatiable desire for all things Kardashian. You've proved them wrong.

The stories that were most widely read were largely hard-hitting investigative pieces or breaking news. There wasn't a Kim, Khloe or Kourtney in the bunch.

PHOTOS: The most-viewed stories of 2011

In fact, the single most popular story on latimes.com in 2011 was the disturbing two-part tale of Louis Gonzalez III, a Las Vegas father who found himself facing life behind bars for allegedly assaulting his ex-girlfriend and mother of his child by tying her up in her Simi Valley home, burning her with matches and sexually assaulting her with a wooden hanger.

"One of the most brutal attacks I have ever seen," is the way one Simi Valley law enforcement officer described the crime scene. A dogged Simi Valley detective set out to collect the evidence to support the woman's claim -- that her ex-boyfriend attacked her -- but the evidence would end up pointing to a more surprising conclusion.

Then there was the revelation that former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, had separated because she discovered that he had fathered a child with a longtime member of their household.

Readers were also drawn to our extensive coverage of Japan's worst earthquake in recorded history. The temblor occurred March 11, rocking the northeast coast of Japan and triggering a deadly tsunami, the effects of which were felt as far as the Pacific Northwest. In all, more than 15,000 people perished.

Other stories that struck a chord with readers included the tale of Alan Kimble Fahey's homemade, ramshackle labyrinth of buildings that he calls Phonehenge West. Located in Acton, the structure is Fahey's 30-year labor of love. But authorities say it violates practically every building and fire code in the book. And officials are trying to force him to tear it down.

An estimated 15 million poker-playing Americans were affected by this next story: The founders of the three largest online poker sites were indicted on charges including bank fraud and money laundering. Many poker players fretted about the fate of their bettings, and the fate of on-line poker playing. But one of the sites, Full Tilt Poker, defended its business practices and the rights of Americans everywhere to gamble away their hard-earned money. 

Rounding out the rest of our list: the colossal failure of Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2, an experimental aircraft capable of traveling at 20 times the speed of sound; a U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering California to improve inhumane conditions for state prison inmates; an in-depth look at Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel; and the Los Angeles-based porn industry's shutdown after an adult film performer tested positive for HIV.

But we all know that readers cannot live on news alone. Here's a look at our most-viewed photo galleries of the year.

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Photo: In happier days, newly-elected California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver celebrate at the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City. Credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times


Santa tracker news flash: Santa's sleigh spotted at top of world

The Santa Tracker for 2011: Santa coming to town

The Santa tracker makes it official, boys and girls: Santa Claus is coming to town.

NORAD's Santa-tracking operation says that Santa One, Santa's reindeer-powered sleigh, has been spotted at the top of the world. The sleigh easily scaled Mount Everest and then zoomed over the Taj Mahal in India, according to NORAD.

Santa's route can't be predicted, NORAD says, but he usually arrives between 9 p.m. and midnight, traveling from east to west.

For the most accurate, up-to-date information, boys and girls (and adults) can follow Santa One's journey online with the Santa Tracker at NORADsanta.org, while Mom and Dad enjoy some eggnog, spiked or otherwise.

Now, kids, you may be wondering, "Who is this NORAD guy and how do I get his job when I grow up"? NORAD is actually a bi-national U.S.-Canadian military organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo. It's responsible for scanning the skies above North America, providing aerospace and maritime defense of the United States and Canada.

That role expanded to include "official tracker of Santa" -- an enviable gig indeed -- nearly 60 years ago. It started by accident: A department store ran an ad that included a phone number for kids who wanted to call Santa and remind him of his or her gift requests. But the phone number was wrong. 

When the first call rolled in to NORAD's hot line looking for "Santa," the then-director of operations, Col. Harry Shoup, thought it was a prank. But then another call came in. And another, and another.

"The staff realized what was happening and started taking the phone calls," NORAD spokesman Lt. Commander Bill Lewis told the Los Angeles Times. "Ever since then, we have taken on the important responsibility of tracking Santa."

"We track Santa live as he travels north to south, moving across the time zones as he moves across the globe," Lewis said. "Santa cams will capture him at various points flying over the city and delivering the gifts."

Kids who want to call in to check on Santa's progress or to make a last few adjustments to their holiday list can call (877) Hi-NORAD (446-6723). More than 1,250 people  -- you might call them Santa's elves -- come in on Christmas Eve and stay through early Christmas morning to help field calls.

Kids, and grownups, can also keep up with NORAD's Santa tracker on Google +, Facebook and Twitter.

And finally, there's this: Lewis says there's always a Grinch-y type who deserves a lump of coal for grousing about the government spending its time on the Santa tracker. He would like that person to know that partners, such as Google Earth, and the call takers all volunteer their time -- and they do it for free.

"Tracking Santa really fits in to what we do, monitoring U.S. and Canadian airspace," he added. "We’re looking to the skies of Canada and the United States, so if Santa is flying around, it gives us the situational awareness that it’s him and it’s not a threat to the United States."

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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Photo: Screen grab of Santa Tracker, via NORAD.


Geminid meteor shower to peak on Tuesday

 Meteor

December is known for gift-giving, and the heavens will do their part this week with the Geminid meteor shower.

The usually fiery Geminid shower, expected to peak Tuesday night, is an annual event rivaling the summer’s Perseid meteor shower. If it's a clear night with sharp contrast between light and dark, viewers can expect to see dozens and perhaps as many as 120 meteors stream across the sky in an hour. The Geminid shower is considered one of the strongest such events in the astronomical year.

But there is an unbearable being of lightness when it comes to meteors. And, this year, a bright moon could disappoint meteor-lovers by obscuring the flaming debris.

In a potential consolation prize, NASA is offering a live chat with meteor experts that evening, complete with images.

The Geminids draw their name from the constellation Gemini because the meteors seem to be coming directly out of those stars. But there's a bit of a mystery attached to the phenomenon, NASA says.

Most meteors are pieces of comets, essentially ice balls with dust, rocks and other types of space debris.

Comets, which sport fiery tails, sweep across the sky and appear to be shooting stars, just like meteors. They usually form in two areas of the solar system: in the Kuiper belt, beyond the orbit of Neptune, and -- even further away from the sun -- in the Oort cloud, sort of a parking lot for icy bodies in the outer solar system.

But the Geminds are believed to be pieces of a specific asteroid, called 3200 Phaethon, which sheds bits of dusty debris. Asteroids, or planetoids of small size, orbit the sun and don’t have tails as do comets. Further, Phaethon orbits closer to the sun than any other known asteroid, coming well inside Mercury's orbit.

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Photo: The enjoyment of a meteor shower depends heavily upon the amount of light in the sky. Shown here is the Leonids meteor shower in 2001 as seen from Tucson, Ariz. Credit: James S. Wood / Arizona Daily Star / Associated Press


Thanksgiving in space: ISS crew will get their turkey

NASA's Dan Burbank may be in space, but he won't be missing Thanksgiving dinner.

The new commander of the International Space Station says, "I've got some turkey, some cranberry dressing, stuffing, all of the standard traditional fare for a Thanksgiving meal already lined up and ready to go," with plenty to go around for his colleagues, cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin.

Burbank talks about the holidays and missing his family in a new video from NASA posted Wednesday.

He and his fellow astronauts took only one week to complete a "whirlwind of a hand-over" of the space station on Tuesday, tasks that typically need two weeks. He takes over for former station commander Mike Fossum and his crew. The new crew members have a four-month mission ahead of them.

Burbank is the first U.S. astronaut to fly to the space station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft since the U.S. retired its shuttle fleet in July. The craft launched Nov. 13 amid a swirling snowstorm from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

There was "basically two arm's length worth of visibility on the way in," he said. But the launch went off smoothly. And, with the handoff done, it's all about settling in.

"Tomorrow will be a day off for us," Burbank says. "We've hardly even had a chance to unpack our things."

Burbank said he missed his family but that he felt closer to them than if he were overseas. He video- conferences with family members once or twice a week, and he says they can watch his gravity-free endeavors most anytime on ISS Live or the Nasa TV website -- if, he noted, they don't get too bored.

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Armed Air Force man barricades self at Colorado's Schriever base

An armed member of the military has barricaded himself inside a building on Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, and local security forces are responding, a base spokeswoman said Monday.

The individual, whose name was not available, is a member of the base’s 50th Security Forces Squadron. He is inside the deployment processing building on the base, officials said.

The man is armed with a handgun, and the building has been evacuated except for responding law enforcement, Staff Sgt. Patrice Clarke of the base’s public affairs office said in a telephone interview

“Our first-responders are trained to handle situations such as this, and we are working with our community partners to resolve this situation as quickly and safely as possible,” Col. James P. Ross, 50th Space Wing commander, said in a post on the base’s website.

“The security of Schriever personnel and their families is paramount. We are taking every precaution to ensure their safety,” Ross stated.

No injuries have been reported, and no hostages are believed to have been taken, Clarke said. The incident began around 10 a.m. local time.

Schriever is near Colorado Springs in El Paso County.

It is home to Air Force Space Command's 50th Space Wing, which provides command and control for various U.S. navigational, and communications satellites.

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NASA: New Mars rover will look for the ingredients of life

Curiosity
If you think that people who believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial life are kooks, you probably haven't talked to a NASA space scientist in a while.

At a news conference on Thursday, Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars program for NASA, said that when the agency's newest Mars rover blasts off for the red planet on Nov. 25, one of its charges will be to discover if the planet contains (or contained) the ingredients of life.

"This mission will bridge the gap scientifically from our understanding of the planet being warmer and wetter than we probably believed, to not seeking life itself, but seeking signs of life," he said.

He reiterated: "This is not a life-seeking mission."

Think about the mission this way: If NASA were going to Mars looking for signs of pancakes instead of signs of life, on this trip it would be looking for flour and eggs, not pancake crumbs -- and definitely not pancakes.

In an interview with The Times, Joy Crisp, deputy project scientist for the Mars Science Laboratory, said the rover will be looking for organic molecules and isotopic signatures that might indicate that life did exist at one time on Mars.

"If this step pans out, if we do find organic compounds and we think that the rocks look likely to preserve evidence of life, then we will know better what to send next," she said. "It is kind of an intermediate step."

Asfor the rover itself -- called Curiosity -- it's 6-feet-tall, weighs roughly 2,000 pounds, and is the most complex machine to be placed on another planet, according to McCuistion.

The rover has high-definition cameras, a laser eye, and a weather station to help scientists monitor the environment. It also has the ability to sample rocks and soils, and a drill that will allow it to capture material from inside rocks.

"This is a Mars scientist dream machine," said Ashwin Vasavada, Mars Science Laboratory deputy project scientist, at the news event.

But the rover won't be landing on the planet for a while. Curiosity is scheduled to leave Earth on Nov. 25 (the day after Thanksgiving), but it won't be landing on Mars until August 2012.

During the news conference, Vasavada was asked how likely he thought it was that Curiosity would find evidence of life on Mars.

"That would be in the realm of speculation," he said, "but the reason we are excited about Mars is that when we look into the distant past, there is evidence of rivers flowing and lakes and we are trying to find out if they are habitable environments."

"Of the hundreds of places we could have landed, we've chosen the best place to find habitable environment," he added. "Now we'll see if we find one."

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Image: This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. In this picture, the rover examines a rock on Mars with a set of tools at the end of the rover's arm. Credit: NASA


First movie of asteroid YU55 released by NASA

 

A steady stream of information about asteroid 2005 YU55 continued to flow from NASA on Tuesday, leading up to the moment  when the asteroid was closest to Earth, at 3:48 p.m. PST.

The latest piece of imagery to come from the space agency is a mini-movie of the asteroid (above) made up of six images taken Monday via a radar telescope. The images were captured when the asteroid was still about 860,000 miles from Earth.

The resolution is 4 meters per pixel and the movie is looped five times. Each image reportedly took 20 minutes of data collection from the Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, Calif.

Although the images appear pixelated, NASA astronomers are excited about the amount of detail they reveal.

"By animating a sequence of radar images, we can see more surface detail than is visible otherwise," radar astronomer Lance Benner said in a statement. He's the principal investigator for the 2005 YU55 observations, from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.  "The animation reveals a number of puzzling structures on the surface that we don't yet understand. To date, we've seen less than one-half of the surface, so we expect more surprises."

Scientists at NASA say the asteroid is turning at a speed of one full rotation per 18 hours.

You can watch live video of the asteroid at Slooh.com or via the Keck Telescope in Hawaii, in cooperation with the Astronomical League and the Planetary Society.

Unless you're a very serious astronomer -- amateur or otherwise -- watching the asteroid via computer is a better way to go than trying to find it in the night sky. The asteroid will be visible only with a 6- to 8-inch (or bigger) telescope, and it won't be easy to find.

Stephen Edberg, an astronomer at JPL, told The Times that in order to see the asteroid, you would need a good telescope -- and a good sky map.

"That would be an absolute requirement," he said.  "You are not going to spot this without something like that."

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Video: Scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory created this six-frame movie of asteroid YU55. It was generated from data obtained by NASA's Goldstone Solar System Radar on Nov. 7. At the time, the space rock was approximately 860,000 miles from Earth.

 


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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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