As I mentioned in an earlier post on cloudspotting, I've been snapping cloud pictures with digital cameras since mid 2008. It's a hobby, like bird watching. The catch adds up to many thousands of pictures in all kinds of weather, mostly in the US. With so much time spent looking out and up, sometimes I come across striking visual effects. They don't come along often, but add zest to the hunt.
This post is to give some context to one of those visual outliers, since I'll be talking briefly about Photo No. 147 tonight with host Ian Punnett at the top of Coast to Coast AM.
Some background: this spring I was getting ready for the summer cloud season, going back through the previous year's crop of cloud pictures to organize them and dispose of unneeded ones; it's like cleaning the electronic attic. That's when an oddity in one image caught my eye; the photo was one out of a series of snaps taken on a weekend afternoon in mid-May 2009. I didn't notice anything special when taking the pictures that day. It's one of those cameras with no viewfinder, just a screen on the back, so in daylight it's very hard to see what the camera is capturing. I was just snapping away because I liked the look of an airliner contrail alongside a set of cool clouds.
Here's the camera I used, of garden-variety:
Here's a portion of the photo in question (No. 147), which I've watermarked for copyright purposes, along with the enlargement below. The anomaly in question is a faint blue oblong in the lower left of the photo.
After enlargement and some added contrast, it looks like this:
It doesn't look like a flying object to me, somewhat more like a ring of plasma, but that doesn't help much either.
Whatever it was, it was fleeting. I had taken a string of pictures in the same general span of sky over a fifteen-minute interval with this camera, and the Ring doesn't show up in any of the others.
In particular, the immediately preceding photo, No. 146, was taken less than a minute before, probably less than thirty seconds before. No. 146 has the same clouds and a slightly shorter jet contrail, but no Ring.
I don't have any great insight about this; I just happened to be outside with a camera; but three things about Photo No. 147 pique my interest. First (and supporting the idea that this was a ring viewed at an oblique angle) is the fact that the "ends" of the ring on the left and right are brighter than other parts of the ring. Look in particular at the tip on the right, how bright it is. This would be the case if looking obliquely at a ring of plasma; the ends would be somewhat overlapped and therefore brighter. Second, there is some kind of central core inside the ring. Third (and this is barely visible until the contrast is raised), there appears to be a faint, bluish arc on the lower left. What the heck is that?
I checked with a few contacts in the world of physics, and they offered no opinion other than the ring might be a camera glitch or a lens flare. I'm no JPEG expert so for all I know, digital cameras produce such glitches randomly. This camera hasn't done so before or since, but maybe it hiccuped that time.
But I'm pretty sure the ring is not a lens flare given the direction the camera was pointing: north or northeast. It takes a brilliant light to make a lens flare and in Minnesota in May, the sun is nowhere near the field of view of a camera that's pointed north at mid-day. Also, lens flares I've seen don't look like this.
Date: Allowing for a mistake I made when setting up the camera clock upon purchase (for example, not changing AM to PM), I'm reasonably sure that I took Photo No. 147 on the early afternoon of Saturday, May 16, 2009. Location was the Twin Cities of Minnesota, looking north or northeast.
I'm hoping a high-energy physicist might have a look. In the meantime the only half-baked hypothesis I can offer is that it's a picture of something very distant exploding in the very high atmosphere, and the shock waves glowed so brightly they overcame the brightness of the sky at mid-day. But when comets come in and blow up there's a debris trail, and none is visible here, so my proposition has its own shortcomings.
If some kind of distant large explosion in the high atmosphere did occur and if it was within view of sensors aboard Defense Support Program reconnaissance satellites, it might have been recorded. In addition to looking down for incandescent ICBM booster plumes, DSP satellites allegedly have, over the years, detected rather large breakups of high-velocity objects in the high atmosphere. I have read that at least one was in the multi-kiloton yield. But as of now all such sensor information is classified so I can't check my hypothesis.
That's it for now; just wanted to add a little extra context for Coast to Coast AM listeners. Thanks for tuning in!