For the first time a net of cameras will be thrown across the USA with their eyes on the skies. NASA has announced creating a national network to scan for and track meteors as they plunge earthwards.
For many thousands of years earthlings have watched falling stars flash across the sky. Only in the relatively recent past—a few hundred years ago—did people discover that the brilliant streaks of light seen on dark and starry nights were rocks from space burning from friction in our atmosphere.
During the past 50 years loose groups of amateur sky watchers have taken to comet hunting, deep space observation and meteor tracking. Now NASA would like to formalize and organize such efforts professionally. The first step towards that is the U.S. space agency's announcement of their intention to establish the "All-Sky Fireball Network."
According to NASA, approximately 100 tons of space rocks falls to earth annually. Most meteors that make landfall are never found, some fall into inaccessible places like oceans. NASA believes that if meteor trackers knew where the rocks struck the earth, researchers could retrieve them for study.
The head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office (MEO), William Cooke, told NASA Science News, “If someone calls me and asks ‘What was that?’ I’ll be able to tell them. We’ll have a record of every big meteoroid that enters the atmosphere over the certain parts of the U.S. Nothing will burn up in those skies without me knowing about it!”
Establishing national night sky monitoring is no easy task. At the moment the project only has three working cameras. All record the night sky in monochrome with fish-eye lenses. NASA hopes to greatly expand the camera system by incorporating astronomy clubs, science facilities and even schools into the countrywide network.
Meteor enthusiasts have taken to the plan. The ability to have access to many more meteorites could expand the knowledge of the solar system, its origins and even of interstellar space.
“When we collect the meteorite chunks, we'll know their source," Cooke explained. "I could be holding a piece of Vesta in my hand." Vesta is the second largest asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter. The asteroid makes up about nine percent of the mass of the entire belt and is named after the Roman goddess of home and hearth.
Besides helping to unlock more of the secrets of the origin of everything, the space rocks could help engineers design better spacecraft. For example, many meteors are no larger than a grain of sand and present a degree of danger to space ships on lengthy missions or ones traveling farther out, say to Mars. Studying the properties of many different meteors could shed light on their basic properties and give metallurgists an additional edge crafting materials to stand up against meteor impacts.
Currently, Cooke has the three existing cameras located in strategic areas. According to the MEO the cameras are stationed in Chickamauga, Georgia, the second Huntsville, Alabama, and the third Tullahoma, Tennessee. Al sites were chosen because of low light pollution.
New cameras are planned to cover parts of the night sky east of the Mississippi River. Cooke wants to expand those into Nevada.
Using the latest technology, the All-sky Fireball Network is plugged into ASGARD (All Sky and Guided Automatic Realtime Detection), a system that partly borrows on artificial intelligence technology first pioneered by NORAD. The science version was developed by University of Western Ontario. NASA and the Canadian government helped fund it.
The AI system processes the data stream (which is considerable) and also sends it on to the Internet. The data it collects and processes includes meteor detection, trajectory and calculated mass. The data is updated daily at eight a.m. Central Time. According to the MEO the last three weeks of data is available on the site here.