Aurigid meteors: make a 3D map!

Contributed by
Aug 27, 2007

Meteor showers are very cool. Seeing little bits of dust slam into the Earth's atmosphere at dozens of kilometers per second, having their kinetic energy almost instantaneously converted into light and heat, leaving a zippy tail and then fading from view... they're wonderful.

But there's science to be done! It's difficult to measure just how high up in the atmosphere a particular meteor burns up, and where it was exactly. But that may be changing, due to an ambitious experiment; one you can help with!

On the early morning of September 1, the rare Aurigids meteor shower will peak. This is debris left over from the 2000-year-period comet Kiess, and the Earth doesn't pass through the meteor stream very often. It will this year, though, and observers in the right locations may see several dozen meteors per hour. Predictions for the shower indicate it peaks On September 1 at 4:33 a.m. Pacific (US) daylight time, so observers on the west coast of the U.S. and Hawaii are favored. For general instructions on how to watch a meteor shower, read my Perseid article (the Aurigids will come form the same rough direction as the Perseids, so the instructions in that link still apply; note the different time of peak though!).

Where does the science come in? If you have a laptop, just go to the Aurigid Meteor Project website, download a program, and then go out and observe the meteor shower. Whenever you see a meteor, all you have to do is click the mouse. The program will record the time of your click. When you're done, email the file with the records, and the data you collected will be combined with everyone else's to make a 3D map (really 4D, including time) of the incoming bits of cosmic fluff!

This is a very cool idea. If it works, it may be possible to learn more about the characteristics of a meteor shower, such as how many meteors are single, or how many are grouped. It will also help nail down the exact peak of the shower, allowing the next one to be more accurately predicted.

If I could, I'd join in, but Colorado is not favored for this; the Sun will be close to rising and the sky will be too bright (plus, I leave for The Amaz!ng Cruise later that day).

If you don't have a laptop or anything like that, then don't sweat it! But go out and take a look anyway if you're in the right locale. It should be cool anyway.

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