Mysterious Object in Skydiving Video Identified

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A viral video (see below) claiming to show a meteoroid flying past a skydiver during a jump in June 2012 has garnered huge hits over the past week, fueling theories ranging from UFOs to meteors — which would be possible but very rare.

The would-be, soon-to-be meteorite (it’s not technically a meteorite until it hits the ground) was captured by a helmet camera on a Norwegian skydiver. Steinar Midtskogen, who was part of the team, posted a blog about the mystery:

“On 17th June 2012 Anders Helstrup was skydiving using his wingsuit. In one of the jumps something very unexpected happened, and his two helmet mounted camera confirmed it: A rock fell from the sky, just past Anders towards the ground. There was no one or nothing above him that could have dropped it. He contacted some geologists and meteorite experts, and an investigation was under way. The videos were analyzed and the area was searched, but the only conclusive proof for a meteorite, the meteorite itself, was not found.”

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It remained a mystery until the group decided to seek some crowdsourced knowledge, and posted the video to YouTube. Some immediately suspected a hoax, and wondered why a strange video taken nearly two years earlier had only recently come to light.

Others noted that if it was a hoax, using either small rocks or a computer-generated image, it seemed like an awful lot of effort for an otherwise rather mundane video. After all, the “meteoroid” didn’t strike the skydiver or do anything dramatic; it simply happened to fall nearby.

Others claimed that it must have fallen from above the parachute (and therefore not with the parachute) because it can been seen when Helstrup’s helmet camera looks up. What’s above the parachutist? Nothing but blue sky — and above that, space.

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The rock could not have come from the plane, which by that point was far below the skydivers and soon to land. Nor could the rock have come from another skydiver, since there was no one above him. The only other apparent possibilities included a meteoroid (which would be an incredibly unlikely event) or a small stone that had somehow been packed, unnoticed, in Helstrup’s parachute. But that still didn’t explain why the stone would be above Helstrup instead of alongside him or below him.

Slate columnist Phil “The Bad Astronomer” Plait examined the video and concluded that the skydiver survived a close call, almost having been hit by what may have been a meteoroid: “My default response is of course extreme skepticism; video hoaxes seem to outnumber real ones 10 to one. But my conclusion here is that unless this was faked outright — and there may simply be no way to ever know that — then this does show what appears to be a rock falling, and that means it may be a meteorite. It certainly looks that way!”

Upon further review of the evidence, Plait later changed his mind — not about the mystery object being a rock — but instead about the rock’s origin: he concluded that it was terrestrial, not extraterrestrial after all.

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His analysis echoed that of the skydiving group. Midtskogen noted, “The riddle quickly cracked under the pressure of the numerous fresh eyes now looking at the problem. Several people were able to point out the important clue that made the pieces fall into place. We think we can reconstruct what happened: A pebble, a few centimeters in size at most, was accidentally caught inside the parachute at the landing site after the previous jump. Then the parachute was packed on a clean floor and the pebble was not noticed. Then Anders made the jump with the stowaway.” The object looked bigger than it actually was because the helmet camera used a wide-angle lens.

As for why the falling stone came from above Helstrup, “It has been demonstrated that a pebble brought by the parachute can appear falling rapidly, not accelerating much, above the parachute a few seconds later.” So the mysterious meteorite may not be so mysterious or meteoritic after all. The unidentified falling object wasn’t a hoax, nor a fake, nor a meteroid, but a simple misunderstanding.

Judge for yourself:

Photo: YouTube screengrab