Well, the results are in, and the answer is simple: comparing 2014 to 2013, the frequency of fireballs increased by 120%. Comparing 2015 to 2014, fireballs increased by 20%. That is a significant increase, and it should be generating a lot of attention. If it is, then it's being done very quietly behind closed doors.
Since October 2013, the web site spaceweather.com has published daily data from NASA's All-Sky Fireball Network, which observes, and daily reports, fireball activity over the US.2
I have collated both sets of data - from NASA and the AMS - to produce the following graphs, taking into account that each dataset relies on different definitions of 'meteor fireball'. Click on the graphs to view them at full size.
Because we are using two datasets, there can be some incongruity for the 2013-2014 data. Nevertheless, the pattern is congruent: from 2010 onwards, the frequency of fireballs has been increasing each year in an exponential fashion (until 2015, when the rate of increase slowed down). Such a change is significant and should be generating a lot of media attention and a lot of activity in near space observation.
The most significant way to plot the data is via a 12-month rolling average, which smooths out 'noise' and demonstrates any significant changes that have occurred. From mid-2010, the average number of fireballs significantly increased, until late 2015 when the rolling average stabilised.
Collating the data into a 6-month rolling average reveals the asymmetric distribution across the year. Fireballs are occurring at higher numbers in the latter part of the year. This difference in distribution significantly increased after 2013. That is, one part of space is becoming dense with dust and rocks, and Earth (and other planets in the inner solar system) are moving through this area of space every year.
Where there is meteor smoke, there are asteroids
NASA has also published data for near-Earth asteroids (NEAs, or near-Earth objects, NEOs) discoveries since 1995.3 Their data shows a consistent increase in asteroid numbers from 1998-2013, and significant increases for 2014 and 2015, which shadows the big increases in fireballs observed over those two years.
- The number of fireballs being observed has slowly increased over the years 2000-2011. Thereafter, their numbers increased rapidly, and moreover, the very rapid increase came from a specific area of space. Most occurred during the period August to December. 2014 and 2015 saw major increases in fireball numbers
- NEA numbers have been observed since 1995. From 1998-2013 the number of new NEAs discovered has relentlessly increased, with major increases in 2014 and 2015. The pattern matches that of the recorded fireballs
- The number of discoveries of large NEAs peaked in 2000, then declined to 2010, and plateaued out thereafter
- Saturn and Jupiter began increasing their number of moons circa 2000/2001, and the numbers stabilized around 2010
More intense meteor showers and more sporadics
We have a limited database from NASA, but the following meteor showers revealed significantly increased fireball numbers for 2015 as compared with 2014:
- Perseids - from Comet 109P Swift-Tuttle
- Northern Taurids - Debris from Comet Encke. The Taurids and Encke are thought to be part of a much larger comet that disintegrated over the past 20,000-30,000 years. Planetary perturbations have split the debris stream into two observable showers (Northern & Southern).
- Geminids - Unlike most meteor showers, the Geminids are not associated with a comet but with Asteroid 3200 Phaethon
- Perseids - Comet 109P Swift Tuttle
- Orionids - Debris from Comet 1P Halley
- Sigma Hydrids - Showed increasing Fireball numbers across each year
- Sigma Hydrids - Faint shower. The meteors are said to have a "Perseid-type velocity." It is assumed that the source was a long-period comet and these are the last remnants of its tail
What's up (in space)?
So it appears that one of a couple of things is happening:
- The solar system is moving into an area of space where it is encountering a higher density of rocks/asteroids, along with the debris trails of some comets, e.g. Encke
- Or something a la 'Nemesis'5 is approaching the inner solar system and perturbing comets/asteroids from the Kuiper Belt and/or the Oort Cloud.
- The two scenarios are not mutually exclusive: the first scenario could also be triggered by the second.
No 'Nemesis' twin sun has yet been detected by NASA's WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) telescope - or so we're told - but WISE has discovered several brown dwarfs in neighboring star systems.8
More recently, Napier et.al.9 published a paper highlighting the significance of Centaurs in the Oort Cloud. Centaurs are giant comets in the trans-Neptunian region, which if displaced into the main solar system, could disintegrate and lead to intermittent but prolonged bombardment of inner solar system planets, for up to 100,000 years. Their opening paragraph is worth reproducing here:
Do we live in dangerous times? The risks to civilization from impacts by asteroids and comets have been appreciated only in the past few decades. Programmes such as NASA's Spaceguard observations seek to map near-Earth objects (NEOs) as a way to quantify the risk to Earth. But does the current count of NEOs reflect the population over time? We argue that the population is variable and that assessments of the extraterrestrial impact risk based solely on near-Earth asteroid counts underestimate its nature and magnitude for timescales of order 10,000 years, i.e. the interval of interest and concern to our civilization.Napier et al further noted that, "All three major 20th-century impacts (Tunguska, British Guiana, Curuca River) coincided with our passage through major meteoroid streams (respectively, the Beta Taurids, Geminids and Perseids)." We currently have significant increases in fireballs among the Perseids and Northern Taurids.
A more variable but significant threat comes from Centaurs, giant comets derived from the trans-Neptunian region that reach the inner solar system generally via short-term, dynamically unstable residence periods in the outer planetary region. The disintegration of such giant comets would produce intermittent but prolonged periods of bombardment lasting up to 100,000 years. Mass extinction/geological boundary events on Earth show such a pattern, as do levels of dust and meteoroids in the upper atmosphere. Over the past 10,000 years, Earth has been experiencing the intermittent arrival of dust, meteoroids and comet fragments from the disintegration of comet 2P/Encke, trapped within the orbit of Jupiter.
I guess we shall just have to see what 2016 has in store, but so far, in early January, the pattern already appears to be... continued increase in fireballs:
About the authorReferences
Dr. M.A. Rose has worked in the chemical, oil & gas industries for 35 years in technical development, process management and environmental posts. He is currently Technical Adviser to MAREXIN B.V., who are developing alternative energy projects in the Black Sea.
- '2013 saw a dramatic increase in meteor fireballs - What does 2014 have in store?', Philipos Moustaki, SOTT.net, 12 January 2014
- NASA's All Sky Fireball Network
- NASA's Near Earth Object Program
- 'Planetary Satellite Discovery Circumstances' at NASA's JPL
- 'Nemesis: Does the Sun Have a 'Companion'?' Space.com, 25 March 2010
- Whitmire, D.P. & Jackson, A.A. (1984), 'Are periodic mass extinctions driven by a distant solar companion?'. Nature 308 (5961): 713 - 715
- Davis M., Hut P., Muller R.A. (1984), 'Extinction of species by periodic comet showers'. Nature 308 (5961): 715 - 717
- 'NASA Discovers Coldest Brown Dwarf Neighbor of the Sun', space.com, 28 April 2014
- Bill Napier, David Asher, Mark Bailey & Duncan Steel, 'Centaurs as a hazard to civilisation', Astronomy & Geophysics 56.6 (2015), 18-23