Space is very much the final frontier for humanity, at least as far as our current understanding of the universe takes us. Only a handful of countries and corporations on Earth have the hardware to readily get there, and even fewer are capable of reaching orbit. For these reasons, working in this field can seem out of reach for many. Nevertheless, there’s plenty about the great expanse beyond our atmosphere that can be studied by the dedicated citizen scientist. With the right equipment and know-how, it’s even possible to capture and study micrometeorites yourself!
For those new to the field, the terms used can be confusing. Meteoroids are small metallic or rocky objects found in outer space, up to around 1 meter in size. When these burn up upon entering the atmosphere, they are referred to as a meteor, or colloquially known as a shooting star. If part of the object survives long enough to hit the ground, this is referred to as a meteorite, and as you’d expect the smaller ones are called micrometeorites, being on the scale of 2mm or less.
Stardust Proves Hard To Find
Being tiny and having fallen from space, micrometeorites present certain challenges to those who wish to find and identify them. In spite of this, they can be found by using the right techniques and a heck of a lot of hard work.
According to ancient astronaut theorists, the lunar eclipse this weekend had an unexpected visitor. Right around the time of totality, a meteoroid crashed into the moon, and it was visible from Earth.
Meteoroids crash into the Earth and Moon all the time, although this usually happens either over the ocean (70% of the Earth) where we can’t see it, on the far side of the moon (~50% of the Moon) where we can’t see it, or on the sunlit side of the Moon (another, different 50%), where we can’t see it. These meteoroids range from the size of a grain of sand to several meters across, but only the largest could ever be seen by the human eye. This weekend’s lunar eclipse, the Super Blood Wolf Moon was visible to a large portion of the population, and many, many cameras were trained on the Moon. Several telescopes livestreamed the entire eclipse, and multiple people caught a glimpse of a small flash of light, seeming to come from around Lagrange crater. Because this event was seen by multiple observers separated by thousands of miles, the only conclusion is that something hit the moon, and its impact event was recorded on video.
This is not the first time an impact event has been recorded on the moon. The Moon Impacts Detection and Analysis System (MIDAS) running out of La Hita Observatory has regularly recorded impact events, including one that was comparable to an an explosion of 15 tons of TNT. These automated observatories aren’t running during a full moon, like during a lunar eclipse, because no camera would be able to pick up the flash of light. We were somewhat lucky last weekend’s impact happened during totality, and with dozens of cameras trained on the Moon.
Further investigation will be necessary to determine the size of the meteoroid and obtain pictures of its impact crater, but for a basis of comparison, the LCROSS mission plowed a Centaur upper stage (2.2 tons) into the lunar surface at 2.5 km/s. This should have resulted in a flash visible through binoculars, but it didn’t. The meteoroid that struck the moon last weekend would have been traveling faster (a minimum of about 12 km/s), but the best guess is that this rock might have been of suitable size to have fit in the back of a pickup truck, or thereabouts.
It’s not hard to detect meteors: go outside on a clear night in a dark place and you’re bound to see one eventually. But visible light detection is limiting, and knowing that meteors leave a trail of ions means radio detection is possible. That’s what’s behind this attempt to map meteor trails using broadcast signals, which so far hasn’t yielded great results.
The fact that meteor trails reflect radio signals is well-known; hams use “meteor bounce” to make long-distance contacts all the time. And using commercial FM broadcast signals to map meteor activity isn’t new, either — we’ve covered the “forward scattering” technique before. The technique requires tuning into a frequency used by a distant station but not a local one and waiting for a passing meteor to bounce the distant signal back to your SDR dongle. Capturing the waterfall display for later analysis should show characteristic patterns and give you an idea of where and when the meteor passed.
[Dave Venne] is an amateur astronomer who turns his eyes and ears to the heavens just to see what he can find. [Dave]’s problem is that the commercial FM band in the Minneapolis area that he calls home is crowded, to say the least. He hit upon the idea of using the National Weather Service weather radio broadcasts at around 160 MHz as a substitute. Sadly, all he managed to capture were passing airplanes with their characteristic Doppler shift; pretty cool in its own right, but not the desired result.
The comments in the RTL-SDR.com post on [Dave]’s attempt had a few ideas on where this went wrong and how to improve it, including the intriguing idea of using 60-meter ham band propagation beacons. Now it’s Hackaday’s turn: any ideas on how to fix [Dave]’s problem? Sound off in the comments below.
NASA has been tracking bright meteoroids (“fireballs”) using a distributed network of video cameras pointed upwards. And while we usually think of NASA in the context of multi-bazillion dollar rocket ships, but this operation is clearly shoe-string. This is a hack worthy of Hackaday.
The basic idea is that with many wide-angle video cameras capturing the night sky, and a little bit of image processing, identifying meteoroids in the night sky should be fairly easy. When enough cameras capture the same meteoroid, one can use triangulation to back out the path of the meteoroid in 3D, estimate its mass, and more. It’s surprising how many there are to see on any given night.
You can watch the videos of a meteoroid event from any camera, watch the cameras live, and even download the meteoroid’s orbital parameters. We’re bookmarking this website for the next big meteor shower.
The work is apparently based on [Rob Weryk]’s ASGARD system, for which the code is unfortunately unavailable. But it shouldn’t be all that hard to hack something together with a single-board computer, camera, and OpenCV. NASA’s project is limited to the US so far, but we wonder how much more data could be collected with a network of cameras all over the globe. So which ones of you are going to take up our challenge? Build your own version and let us know about it!
Between this project and the Radio Meteor Zoo, we’re surprised at how much public information there is out there about the rocky balls of fire that rain down on us every night, and will eventually be responsible for our extinction. At least we can be sure we’ll get it on film.
We sometimes look back fondly on the old days where you could–it seems–pretty easily invent or discover something new. It probably didn’t seem so easy then, but there was a time when working out how to make a voltage divider or a capacitor was a big deal. Today–with a few notable exceptions–big discoveries require big science and big equipment and, of course, big budgets. This probably isn’t unique to our field, either. After all, [Clyde Tombaugh] discovered Pluto with a 13-inch telescope. But that was in 1930. Today, it would be fairly hard to find something new with a telescope of that size.
However, there are ways you can contribute to large-scale research. It is old news that projects let you share your computers with SETI and protein folding experiments. But that isn’t as satisfying as doing something personally. That’s where Zooniverse comes in. They host a variety of scientific projects that collect lots of data and they need the best computers in the world to crunch the data. In case you haven’t noticed, the best computers in the world are still human brains (at least, for the moment).
Their latest project is Radio Meteor Zoo. The data source for this project is BRAMS (Belgian Radio Meteor Stations). The network produces a huge amount of readings every day showing meteor echoes. Detecting shapes and trends in the data is a difficult task for computers, especially during peak activity such as during meteor showers. However, it is easy enough for humans.
When the big annual meteor showers come around, you can often find us driving up to a mountaintop to escape light pollution and watching the skies for a while. But what to do when it’s cloudy? Or when you’re just too lazy to leave your computer monitor? One solution is to listen to meteors online! (Yeah, it’s not the same.)
Meteors leave a trail of ionized gas in their wake. That’s what you see when you’re watching the “shooting stars”. Besides glowing, this gas also reflects radio waves, so you could in principle listen for reflections of terrestrial broadcasts that bounce off of the meteors’ tails. This is the basis of the meteor burst communication mode.
[Ciprian Sufitchi, N2YO] set up his system using nothing more than a cheap RTL-SDR dongle and a Yagi antenna, which he describes in his writeup (PDF) on meteor echoes. The trick is to find a strong signal broadcast from the earth that’s in the 40-70 MHz region where the atmosphere is most transparent so that you get a good signal.
This used to be easy, because analog TV stations would put out hundreds of kilowatts in these bands. Now, with the transition to digital TV, things are a lot quieter. But there are still a few hold-outs. If you’re in the eastern half of the USA, for instance, there’s a transmitter in Ontario, Canada that’s still broadcasting analog on channel 2. Simply point your antenna at Ontario, aim it up into the ionosphere, and you’re all set.
We’re interested in anyone in Europe knows of similar powerful emitters in these bands.
The folks at Q42 write code, lots of it, and this implies the copious consumption of coffee. In more primitive times, an actual human person would measure how many cups were consumed and update a counter on their website once a day. That had to be fixed, obviously, so they hacked their coffee machine so it publishes the amount of coffee being consumed by itself. Their Jura coffee machine makes good coffee, but it wasn’t hacker friendly at all. No API, no documentation, non-standard serial port and encrypted EEPROM contents. It seems the manufacturer tried every trick to keep the hackers away — challenge accepted.
The folks at Q42 found details of the Jura encryption protocol from the internet, and then hooked up a Raspberry-Pi via serial UART to the Jura. Encryption consisted of taking each byte and breaking it up in to 4 bytes, with the data being loaded in bit positions 2 and 5 of each of the 4 bytes, which got OR’ed into 0x5B. To figure out where the counter data was stored by the machine in the EEPROM, they took a data dump of the contents, poured a shot of coffee, took another memory dump, and then compared the two.
Once they had this all figured out, the Raspberry-Pi was no longer required, and was replaced with the more appropriate Particle Photon. The Photon is put on a bread board and stuck with Velcro to the back of the coffee machine, with three wires connected to the serial port on the machine.
If you’d like to dig in to their code, checkout their GitHub repository. Seems the guys at Q42 love playing games too – check out 0h h1 and 0h n0.