Orange Lights in the Sky: Chinese Lanterns or Fireballs?

Robert Graham
Rathmore Grammar School, Belfast
Work-experience project 2012 January 16–20


Every year hundreds of sightings of fireballs turn out to be nothing more than Chinese lanterns, launched into the night sky by people in celebration. This document describes a few main differences between genuine fireballs and Chinese lanterns so that the number of false fireball reports can be reduced.

Summary of Observations

After analysing approximately two years of reported sightings of fireballs recorded by Armagh Observatory, around 75 of the 281 reports up to mid-January 2012 are evidently incidents where a person or even a group of people have mistaken Chinese lanterns for fireballs.

Some typical examples of such reports are provided below. These are obvious Chinese lantern sightings that have been mistaken for fireballs.

Date: 2011-Dec-07
Time: 19:00
Location: Merlin Park Hospital Grounds, Galway City, Ireland
Report: A single bright orange ball moving slowly and silently across the very dark night sky. Object passed almost directly overhead of my location in central grounds of Merlin Park Hospital. Object was moving in a west to east direction. Size as observed was circa 2-3 times the diameter of a very bright star. Orange glow was very intense, and eerily similar to the intensity and colour tone of the orange street lamps in the hospital grounds. Flight path was straight, no apparent deviation observed during sighting period (circa 2-3 minutes). Was clearly visible from moment of observing due west until it disappeared high in the sky due East. Captured briefly (circa 50 seconds) footage on mobile phone video but no zooming capabilites - video shows a bright spot moving eastwards beyond hospital buildings and then disappears while still high in the sky - but perhaps this could be due to a cloud bank?? Height above horizon did not seem to alter. Light winds at ground level were moving in a similar direction.

Date: 2011-Nov-22
Time: approx 08.25am
Location: Castlewellan - Kilcoo Co down N Ireland
Report: While driving up cross lane BT34 5JT (towards the Bryansford Rd) I saw what looked like a plane on fire in the sky over the ocean (to my left - newcastle co Down) it was moving very slow but had a very small sort of tail - it was a ball of fire falling from left to right out of the sky but very slow - at a quick look it actually looked like it wasn't moving at all but when I stopped to look at it - it was def moving, there was no sound and it seemed futher away than a plan looks in the sky and it didnt leave a trail like a plane- at approx 08.40am I lost sight of it, seemed to fall behind the cloud line - very strange indeed!!

Date: 2012-Jan-12
Time: 22:35
Location: dagenham essex rm109pb
Report: parking my car westerly direction, I noticed a flickering orange red light coming from north west to south east. I went indoors and out to my back garden to see it pass over, it had changed to a dull grey colour, it appeared to be a quarter of the size of the Moon at that time, a massive spinning rock. It did not appear to go back into the atmosphere. It carried on over the houses.

Date: 2011-Oct-03
Time: 20:15 to 20:45
Location: Burren, Co. Down
Report: A burning orange ball at a moderate speed moving at a tangent roughly North to East. It went away into the East with a declining elevation and was still visible for after 20 minutes or so into the distance

Next we provide some examples of reports that may be Chinese lanterns but for which not enough information is given to make a firm identification.

Date: 2011-Sep-28
Time: Between 11pm and midnight Tuesday September 28th 2011
Location: Enniskillen Northern Ireland
Report: Observed a meteor / orange fireball falling across the sky relatively slowly (ie compared to some white shooting stars I have observed in the past). This orange fire ball appeared to 'burn out' across he sky as it travelled in the direction north to north west of my location.

Date: 2011-Jan-01
Time: 7.30pm
Location: ahoghill co antrim
Report: a fireball traveling very fast , with the naked eye it looked about the size of a blazing football. I was able to use my binoculars to see it, and it looked about the size of the moon , there were some "cracks" visible and a very distinctive ring of fire around it.It was traveling approximately west to east and at a very great speed. It appeared to be quite close moving left to right, and lasted possibly twenty to thirty seconds, visibility was good, howvever as it moved across my line of vision towards the right above some trees it vanished i got the impression it had gone behind some cloud.

Date: 2011-Aug-21
Time: 10.00pm
Location: the manor country park ,romford essex
Report: while walking home tonight saw one shooting star heading north about 5minutes later glimsped another one large bright tail coming straight down with orange spark disapiring behind the trees ,then while walking back on road with street lighting walking south, looked up to see large very bright light moving very bright ,slowly and silently west going east not a satalite or normal aircraft ,i felt draw to it as thing of beauty watched it fly slowly off, seen similer things lately , but this was the best glad i went for a walk..

Finally we provide some examples where it is not entirely clear what has been seen so the object cannot be firmly classified as either a fireball or a Chinese lantern.

Date: 2011-Dec-31
Time: 8.35-840 pm
Location: wollaton nottingham ng8
Report: I was driving back home ,about 100yards near my home ,I saw bright red/orang ball in sky ,appeared staionary ,then very quicky disappered into cloud. I paprked my car in drive way ,and looked at it carefully ,this was not a plane .

Date: 2011-Dec-14
Time: 21:50pm
Location: G76 7UY
Report: I saw a bright orange object in sky falling downward and thought it was a plane light at first. However very low and no engine noise or any noise.And there was a white stream of light tailing from it and it continued down behind the trees to the north of my house, all in probably fell at acute ange less than 90 degree. And appeared below plough constilation. Probably more of a shooting star but thought i would email any way. I have seen shooting stars before but this was brighter and previous shooting stars were in Dumfries Sky Park area, never seen any shooting stars in this area before.

Date: 2011-Nov-11
Time: 4:58
Location: hoover alabama 35244
Report: I was walking in my friends yard when i saw a huge glowing red orange object with red fire coming out of it and we dont have a image

Date: 2011-Sep-03
Time: between 10pm and midnight ish
Location: Over Belfast Lough towards Whitehead and the Irish Sea
Report: Observed from Bangor, looking NNE over belfast lough towards Whitehead / Larne. Direction of Travel N or NE. Relatively low in the sky, very bright. Slow moving compared to shooting star. Only observed it for a few seconds. Large fireball with trail - becoming bright and then going out suddenly! Very distincy fireball appearance.

Chinese lanterns

chinese lanterns
Lanterns at great heights resemble
fireballs but are much slower than
the real thing and do not fade quickly.

The make-up of a lantern is effectively the same as that of a hot air balloon, with a thin paper layer held up by wire in a general balloon shape. There is a fairly large hole underneath where you attach a lit candle. The heat of the candle forces air to rise, and this air fills the "pouch" in between the paper and makes the lantern rise into the air. Such lanterns can be blown miles away from their starting point by the wind and may also reach great heights.

They are mainly released by people to celebrate certain points in the calendar, such as birthdays, holidays and festivals such as the Chinese New Year. But in recent years they have been adopted by people in many countries for use in parties and other celebrations such as Halloween, Christmas and so on.

chinese lanterns
The colour of the lanterns can easily
lead to misidentification.

This increase in use brings a problem for astronomers as when people see the lanterns (especially at night) they can easily mistake them for fireballs. Chinese lanterns are usually made of coloured paper and the lit candle shining through can often give the impression of a flaming orb-like object traveling through the sky at quite a large height. These "orbs" can be any colour depending on the colour of paper so it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart from fireballs, which can also display many of the same colours.

Lanterns will sometimes be set off in groups which drift together on the wind and this can sometime suggest in peoples’ minds that some kind of meteor shower is happening.

Others catch glimpses of these through gaps in cloud and immediately jump to a conclusion of what they have seen.



Table showing month-by-month distribution of the 79 suspected Chinese lantern sightings over the two years 2010 and 2011

Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sept Oct Nov Dec
Number of sightings 4 3 3 2 4 3 1 10 7 12 13 17

Video views of Chinese lanterns

Here we provide links to a few video records of Chinese lanterns.

This picture shows a green coloured
fireball as would be seen from the


A fireball is brighter than a normal meteor (usually magnitude –4 or brighter). They are caused when particles of debris ranging from the size of a grain of sand to that of a boulder collide with the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up as they are heated to incredibly high temperatures by friction caused by the air.

Fireballs can be seen in a range of different colours. Their colour depends on their composition. For example a green-coloured fireball will most likely contain a fair amount of copper, which when burnt gives a green flame. For an orange fireball there will most likely be sodium present; for a red fireball, iron; lilac suggests potassium; and for red there normally is silicate or rock present.

Appearance of a blue flame as it
collides with the Earth’s upper
atmosphere. The trail is clearly visible.

When the meteoroids collide with the Earth’s atmosphere their total speed can range up to approximately 70km per second. The meteors normally appear at altitudes of around 100 to 50 kilometres in the atmosphere. Although they only last a few seconds, owing to their great speeds and temperatures they can sometimes leave a luminous trail that may remain visible for times ranging from seconds to many minutes.

Video views of meteors and fireballs

Here we provide links to a few video records of meteors and fireballs.


This report has summarised the observations of true fireballs and Chinese lanterns, and identified the principal differences between the two kinds of phenomena. These are:

The following reports quite evidently describe true fireballs and should give an idea of what true sightings are like.

Date: 2012-Jan-12
Time: c.23:35 UT
Location: Seen from M1 near Lisburn, c.2 miles north of Sprucefield, NI
Report: Sky was overcast, no stars obviously visible, though it was clear to the South and West. Bright meteor seen in direction roughly SW, a little to right of line of motorway. It lanced through the clouds at a steep angle moving downwards and a little from left to right, an angle 60 or more degrees to the horizon. Brightness around mag -3 or -4; similar to Jupiter and Venus. Appeared to fragment, but more likely this was one meteor seen appearing and disappearing through distant cloud layers. Duration 1 to 2 seconds roughly. Colour blue-white.

Date: 2010-Nov-28
Time: 17.45
Location: Armagh
Report: A bright fireball shot across this evening's sky north of Armagh,travelling roughly east to west. It appeared from my position to be quite low to the ground, so that at first I thought it was a firework. But its fast and constant speed made me believe it to be a meteor or bolide. I saw it for about 3 or 4 seconds. The fireball was burning brightly with a red or greenish glow; it had a tail.

Date: 2010-Feb-03
Time: 17:56
Location: travelling North approaching Moy Village
Report: Glad to see someone else saw this! I was travelling North approaching Moy Village on Wednesday 3rd. February, 2010. Time was 17:56. I saw a bright whitish fireball about the size of a football with long orangy tail for about 2 seconds. It seemed to 'dim' for a fraction of a second then flash brighter for a fraction of a second as bits broke off and burned up reddish colour in the tail, the fireball continued on until obscured by rooftops. Total time about 4 seconds. It was 'slow' and appeared to falling downwards rather than travelling across the sky. Direction was left to right, maybe SW to NE just under 45 Deg. I heard no sound (in moving car with radio on). Quite a sight! - the best I've ever seen - I thought it was a satellite falling from space!

Date: 2011-Dec-22
Time: 00:40
Location: Hailsham,East Sussex,UK
Report: Very Bright Green/Pale Blue Ball Object with a trail behind it Streaked Across Sky And Disappear Into Nothing (Like It Burnt Up)i was driving and it came over almost over the car and burnt up/dissolved in front of me in the sky it was visable for poss 3-4 secs


Fireballs can be seen by anyone, but it is still hard for people to identify them if they do not know what they look like and how they behave in the sky. A Chinese lantern does sometimes look like the generic description of a fireball, a flaming sphere in the sky, but there are also many differences between these objects and true fireballs.

After witnessing an unusual event such as a fireball, good advice is to relax and calm down as usually people get very excited about what they believe they have seen. Then take a moment to reflect on what you have seen and whether it had the characteristics of a fireball or a Chinese lantern. It is quite easy to tell them apart after you have learnt the differences shown in this paper, and although Chinese lanterns are man-made they are a fairly unusual sight. Happy stargazing!

See also:
Armagh Observatory Fireball Report Form
Fireball reports on the BBC web site

Last Revised: 2012 January 25th