The Fireball & Aurora of 8 November 1991

[Fireball, Color]

[Fireball, B/W]

[Train of Fireball B/W]

The Society from time to time arranges weekend or overnight star parties in the neighbouring Pennine areas. In the Spring of 1991 accommodation was found in a 'holiday house' which had recently been converted from an old barn in Wincle, a small picturesque village about 4 miles south of Macclesfield in Cheshire (about 8 miles from Jodrell Bank). It had rained continuously, but the house was so well sited and suited for our purposes that it was booked again from 1st to lOth November covering two successive moon-free weekends with the weekdays thrown in. Several members took advantage of the both weekends as well as having a short holiday there during the week. The weather was never very good, although there had been high hopes of seeing meteors. On Friday, 8th November, a number of other members joined them after work - some travelling from the far side of Manchester and arriving at about 21.00 hours some three hours after full darkness.

Almost immediately, just after 9 pm, there began a most spectacular Auroral display which continued for over two hours. Glorious green, red, yellow rays came shooting over the slightly raised skyline at the back of the house which screened the Macclesfield urban lights to the North and North West, sometimes suffusing the entire sky with sufficient light for a newspaper to be read. Many people throughout the UK witnessed the exceptional display, but none can have seen a more terrific and inspiringly beautiful sight than those at Wincle that evening. In many nearby areas nothing was seen because of the marauding clouds. Yet here was a group of dedicated and experienced amateur astromoners arriving fully equipped for a dark-sky weekend of observing and photogaphy, with loaded cameras, tripods (and telescopes, but these were irrelevant), right on the spot. This amazing good fortune was doubly rewarded. The main hope had been to record promised and expected strong meteor showers. Among the most senior members present was a retired professional photographer, Mr Joe Billington. He has a record of brilliant astrophotography over several years. He was in the middle of a 30 second exposure of the blood-red Auroral sky with the interesting hill-side horizon at the base and the Pleiades showing faintly in the top right quadrant of his 35 mm frame, when, exactly in the middle of his viewfinder a huge fireball exploded in a blinding white flash. This must have been a one-in-a-million chance, albeit a chance which was a reward of years of choosing and setting up in the most favourable conditions year after year over many years. Nobody went to bed that night!

The next morning Joe went down into Macclesfield, bought the necessary chemicals and basic equipment, and spent the afternoon processing everyone's film - so that on Sunday, the rain plummeting down again as usual, there was a full slide show. The pictures were shown again on the following Thursday's ordinary weekly meeting at the Godlee Observatory. Everyone had by then heard the joyous news. Members crowded into the tiny room beneath the telescope dome. Euphoria pervaded. When the master picture of the fireball came on the screen there were cheers and claps and excited congratulations. Joe Billington was and for a long time will remain a hero.

It was more than 3 years later that a photograph taken on the same night by Dave Baker was examined closely on the Godlee observatory when it was noticed that a faint wavy trail was seen to be in the same place in the sky as Joe's Fireball.

The photographs were taken with different focal length lenses and with a different orientation. Both image were subsequently scanned and image processed to put both images to the same scale and orientation. The results are as you see them.

The train must have been distorted in the atmosphere by atmospheric wind and shear effects, much as you would see from an aircraft exhaust.

Aurora / Fireball Meteor, Joe Billington.

Train, Dave Baker.


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