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Unusual object I saw in sky in Boston area

  1. Mar 31, 2007 #1


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    Hi! I just saw something very unusual in the Boston sky today at 4:00 PM. Yes, in the middle of daylight.

    It looked a lot like a star and it was almost straight up. It then slowly moved roughly from west to east and went maybe 45 degrees in 5-6 minutes. That would give whatever it is an orbital period of maybe 50 minutes or so if it was orbiting the earth. It then started to fade away and I lost it.

    The question is: WHAT IS IT? I know a lot of astronomy, and I even asked someone who's getting a Ph.D in astronomy about it, but neither of us could figure it out.

    1: It's not a planet -- it moves. And straight up from Boston is dec +42 so we're way out of the ecliptic.
    2: It's not a satellite: it's too bright (brighter than Venus) and the orbital period is too short.
    3: It's probably not an airplane: it's too high. And it doesn't have contrails. A plane had just gone through the area (that's why I managed to see the "star") and it had contrails.
    4: Not a comet -- moved too quickly.
    5: Not a meteor -- would have burned up much more quickly.
    6: Not a supernova -- it moved. And we'd have heard about supernovae before they became visible!

    What could it have possibly been? There are only a few things I can think of:

    1. Iridium flare (do those still exist? Maybe what saw was consistent with a 90 minute orbit -- but does a flare last that long)
    2. Near-earth asteroid (in which case someone must be notified but unfortunately I do not have enough information to determine an orbit)
    3. VERY high-flying aircraft (but aircraft never get high enough to look like points and it was quite bright)
    4. ISS (but does the ISS get up to declinations in the 40's?)

    I'm baffled by this. Can you give me a hand?

    Thanks in advance,

  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 31, 2007 #2


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    My guess is that you were looking at a high altitiude jet, the visibility of which was enhanced by reflected sunlight. Atmospheric conditions above 30,000 feet or so are such that contrails from the condensed vapor of the jet engines exhaust are seldom made. Many of the contrails over the Boston area come from inbound commercial airliners from Europe making their approach to NY's JFK airport, at altitudes circa 20,000 feet. BTW, the ISS is visible from Boston, but its last approach was at 4AM this morning in the low northern sky.
  4. Apr 1, 2007 #3


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    I just looked at the planetarium program I use (Starry Night) and unless it doesn't accurately predict iridium flares (several iridium satellites flew over around that time), there wasn't anything in spacethat should have been visible.
  5. Apr 1, 2007 #4


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    I'd agree with PhanthomJaY'S ANSWER. It was probably a high altitude jet.

    To go through your list:
    1. Iridium flate -- no. They only flare for a few degrees. You wouldn't see them cross the entire sky. (by the way, they do still exist. Check out Heavens-Above.com )

    2. There's no reason it couldn't be this. But if it were, I'd expect hundreds, if not thousands of reports. Crossing the sky in 5-6 minutes is about what you would expect from a satellite, except it should difficult to track it for several minutes. Like an iridium, it should flare briefly, then disappear.

    3. High flying jets do get far enough away to shrink to a point, especially in the daytime, when a reflection of the sun is all that makes it stand out from the bright blue sky. There are pleanty of smaller jets than the commercial ones we are all familiar with. It could be a Lear Jet, or one of several other models. These bus-sized aircraft look pretty small when viewed from 8 miles away.
    4. ISS. No. Much too hard to see in the daytime, except for a brief flare. And Russ would have found it in Starry Night. Their orbits are well known.

    I vote for the airplane.
  6. Apr 1, 2007 #5
    weather balloon?
  7. Apr 1, 2007 #6


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    Swamp gas refracting the light from Venus?
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