Researchers using NASA’s AIM spacecraft have recently discovered that meteor smoke is a key ingredient of Earth’s mysterious noctilucent clouds. “Meteor smoke” is the fine ashen debris left over when a meteoroid burns up in the atmosphere. On August 12th, during the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, Petr Horálek photographed a dense plume of the material twisting and turning over Sumava, Czech republic.
“The fireball that produced this smoke was magnitude -9, [almost as bright as a quarter moon,” says Horálek. “This could be the brightest fireball of the 2012 Perseids.” The smokey trail was visible for more than five minutes before it finally dispersed.
If the AIM science team is correct, this smoke will drift through the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere more than 80 km above the planet’s surface. Up there, rare molecules of water will cling to the meteoritic particles, slowly gathering to form tiny crystals of ice until—voilà! A noctilucent cloud is born.