The Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail websites (apologies for linking to the latter, I hate it too, but it’s a useful source today), and local newspapers all over the country, are reporting that many people, from the South West of England to Scotland, heard mysterious noises last night (that is, Saturday 29th Nov 2014). Indeed, a a lady in Croyden made a recording. Have a listen. Sounds like fireworks, or a lot of thunder, or gunfire amidst a battle? You may be vaguely disinterested, it’s being reported in the wretched DM after all. But I heard exactly the same sounds. As did several of us who happened to be standing outside the village pub, the Red Lion in Preston, Hertfordshire. I can’t say I noted the time, but most reports seem to suggest it was around 10.30pm, which would fit. I couldn’t say for certain how long it lasted, but at least tens of seconds, maybe longer. We thought it must be fireworks, but could see none. But we live in a hilly and wooded area, so have often heard but not seen fireworks. I wasn’t on twitter at the time, as my phone was out of juice, so wasn’t aware that the same sounds were being heard nationwide. At lunchtime friends from the next village, in the direction we heard the sounds coming from (basically, west), also reported hearing them. They too thought someone’s having a loud fireworks party. But saw nothing. So what was it?
The Daily Mirror has made a number of suggestions, and there are more from punters on reddit, none of which are satisfactory to me. But as a professional astronomer and scientist, who heard those noises, I guess I ought to be trying to find out.
Clearly it wasn’t fireworks, despite the Met Police telling the good folk of Croyden that’s what it was. Some firework display to be heard by me 50 miles away, let alone the burgers of Aberdeen.
Sonic booms from aircraft? That’s a lot of aircraft. A sonic boom is exactly that. Boom. Not continuous for tens of seconds and longer. And the RAF said they scrambled no jets last night anyway. They have done occasionally recently so it’s not totally daft to expect to hear a sonic boom over England these days, but the Typhoons on Quick Reaction Alert launch alone or in pairs. The RAF doesn’t have dozens flying at once.
Russians? A small Russian naval flotilla passed through the Channel yesterday. But they were not taking potshots at the Surrey mansions of dissident ex-pats. The Mirror and Reddit both carried claims of “Russian airships”. Errr, WTF? No.
An explosion was reported at Catterick barracks in the early hours of the morning. But Catterick is in North Yorkshire. So, no.
Thunder? The Met Office dismisses a meteorological explanation. The weather was quiet last night. Yes, sound could have travelled a long way from a storm, especially if there were the right temperature inversions in the atmosphere. But the Met Office know their stuff. There were no storms around the British Isles last night.
Meteors? The sky was clear last night, although the transparency wasn’t great, so I probably wouldn’t have noticed all but the brightest meteors. The maximum of the only major meteor in November, the Leonids, was on the 17th/18th, and they are finished by the 20th. So, not them. The Geminids don’t start until Dec 6th. Of course, it’s possible for a random, unexpected meteor shower to occur. But meteors explode so high in the atmosphere (~100km) they produce no sound. If a large enough object got into the lower atmosphere before it exploded, someone would have seen it, and maybe heard something. But this noise went on for a long time, not the second or so that a meteor lasts. It would have had to have been a very intense, yet short, meteor shower of large enough objects all getting low enough in the atmosphere. So, no.
A rocket re-entering? Apparently a piece of Russian satellite Kosmos 2251 re-entered last night, but the expert the Mail contacted said the timing was not good for the event heard in the UK. The vast majority of orbiting debris is tracked and its re-entry time and place can be predicted, albeit sometimes with relatively large errors. So, possible I suppose. But what we heard went on for at least tens of seconds. I don’t know what lots of pieces of re-entering rocket might sound like or how long it would last, but the sheer length of the sounds might make this explanation implausible??
Mass hysteria? Well, of course the trolls of twitter could go to work and convince everyone they’re hearing stuff all over the country when there’s nothing happening there, and I might even be prepared to believe that. Except I heard the sounds myself. And I wasn’t on twitter as my phone was dead. And I’m a profession skeptic – sorry – scientist. And I was with other witnesses. So, no.
UFOs (or at least, visiting aliens) don’t exist so it wasn’t one of them. There are reports going back years of exotic spyplanes developed by the US (see the Aurora project), which might be powered by ramjets. But now I’m getting into conspiracy theory territory.
I guess someone will quickly come up with a mundane explanation, especially on Monday when the journos are all back at work. If not, I’d love to see a proper analysis, if it can be done (using twitter?), of the times people first heard the noise around the country. Does it differ? Is there a pattern, or track which would indicate a moving object? I didn’t notice any fading of the sound or doppler effect, but definitely thought the sound was coming from the west. Unfortunately, I didn’t note the time. Since I thought it was an annoying firework party. Which it wasn’t.
Update 23:11 30/11/14
The Mail are now reporting that the sounds were heard “simultaneously” in New York (let’s go for contemporaneous, speed of sound etc). If true, that means it must have been an event high in the atmosphere. Which points to meteors or rocket re-entry. I contacted the best expert I know, Prof Alan Fitzsimmons at Queens Uni Belfast, to ask what he knew of meteors making audible sounds, here’s his response. I’ll read the paper he recommends in the morning. If a meteor breaking up – and it took tens of seconds at least – am now wondering if this event is actually quite rare and exciting….
Update 12:00 01/12/14
The Daily Fail has now decided it was indeed the Aurora spyplane. I should have added that the Aurora, should it exist, is reportedly powered by a ramjet that might sound like the rhythmic rumblings of saturday evening (& like V1 Doodlebug of WWII).