The fireball network: an opportunity for citizen science?

This is an interesting project put on by NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Project (MEO) using some low light B/W video cameras placed into a skyward looking weatherproof housing made of a clear dome and some PVC pipe fittings and connected to a network to submit data to a central website. They have only three cameras operating at the moment, but it seems to me that this is the sort of project that would be perfect for the citizen science community to get involved in as these devices appear well within reach cost-wise of the hobbyist astronomer/electronics tinkerer of which there are many.

From the NASA All Sky Fireball Network:

“What was that bright light in the sky last night?”

Intro:  The NASA All-sky Fireball Network is a network of cameras set up by the NASA Meteoroid Environment Office (MEO) with the goal of observing meteors brighter than the planet Venus, which are called fireballs.  The collected data will be used by the MEO in constructing models of the meteoroid environment, which are important to spacecraft designers.

Cameras:  Cameras in the network are specialized black and white video cameras with lenses that allow for a view of the whole night sky overhead.

All-sky Fireball Network

Network:  The network currently consists of 3 cameras placed in locations in north Alabama, northwest Georgia, and southern Tennessee.  The network is growing all the time, with plans to place a total of 15 cameras in schools, science centers, and planetaria in the United States, predominately east of the Mississippi River, where there are few such systems.

Data:  The cameras have overlapping fields of view, which means that the same fireball can be detected by more than one camera.  This allows us to calculate the height of the fireball and how fast it is going.  We can even work out the orbit of the meteoroid responsible for creating the fireball, which gives us clues about whether it came from a comet or an asteroid.  If the fireball is traveling slow enough, and makes it low enough, it is possible that it can survive to the ground as a meteorite.

This website:  This website displays fireball data in the form of images, movies, diagrams, and text files.  The data is organized by date.  Click on a date in the list on the left to see the fireballs detected that night.  If the page appears blank that means no fireballs were detected, probably because of bad weather. The website is automatically updated every morning at 8:00 am Central Time.  Only the last 3 weeks of data is available online.

The MEO has created material for educators, containing background information about meteors, a description of the network, and suggestions for classroom use of the data. This is available below as a workshop, along with accompanying datasets and video.

Workshop (47Mb PDF)

Datasets (Excel Spreadsheets):

2010 Perseids

November 2009 Meteors

November 2009-2010 Sporadics

Orbit Table


For more information, contact Dr. Bill Cooke or check out the MEO website.

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March 19, 2011 3:13 am

Perhaps there’ll be some serendipitous (OT) sightings too.

March 19, 2011 4:23 am

On the subject of heavenly bodies; I have just learnt that the moon is today at its closest approach to Earth for some time. Could it be that the increased tide raising forces are having some effect on Earth’s tectonic plates and hence the earthquakes? Although the gravitational force is given as 1/d^2 the actual rate of change which is the most important varies as 1/d^3 which magnifies the effect of distance quite a lot. Just a thought.

Luther Wu
March 19, 2011 4:50 am

Roger Knights says:
March 19, 2011 at 3:13 am
Perhaps there’ll be some serendipitous (OT) sightings too.
Did you mean (OT) or (ET)?

Jean Parisot
March 19, 2011 6:39 am

You could count me in on this, and I am sure I could round up at least 5 others in geographically dispersed areas.

March 19, 2011 6:44 am

Looks like a cool project requiring a relatively simple set-up. Too bad I live in the middle of a city, where stellar features are generally obscured by city lights. :-\

March 19, 2011 6:47 am

The cameras will record lights in the sky, stationary or moving — interpretation is another issue.

March 19, 2011 8:27 am

Kip Hansen says:

The cameras will record lights in the sky, stationary or moving — interpretation is another issue.

A fireball is pretty simple to identify. I have a webcam which records at 3 fps around the clock. Every morning my computer makes a single exposure of the entire night (by simply finding the maximum luminance for every pixel in the ~100,000 frames captured). That will show the moon, bright stars and planets, some sensor noise – and any fireballs, which can easily be spotted by a quick glance. Just a few days ago I spotted such a fireball on a picture capturing the entire night. Then I just had to search a bit to find the exact moment responsible for the fireball streak and extract the video capturing the fireball.
One single video of a fireball has limited use, but a network of cameras could give interesting results.

March 19, 2011 9:40 am

Little chance of ET sightings – the Visitors know where the cameras are. After all, you just told them.

March 19, 2011 1:21 pm

@Baxter75: The problem with your theory is that the earthquake struck a week ago when the moon was near 1st quarter and tidal forces were near minimum. There was also nothing unusual about the moon’s distance then.

March 19, 2011 2:07 pm

Ok, I’m hooked. Someone please tell me how to make a camera like that one, and where to get the software to control it.

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