It’s hard to decipher what that bright light you saw in the sky was or, if you know when to look, where that shooting star should be located.
NASA’s All Sky Fireball Network aims to make the process of night sky gazing a lot easier. Using three video cameras located in Tullahoma, Tenn.; Chickamauga, Geor.; and Huntsville, Ala., scientists are tracking the trajectory of fireballs – or meteors brighter than Venus – in order to help spacecraft designers. Bonus: Videos, detailed charts and analytical models from the last three weeks are available to the public so you can track the data for yourself.
“Throughout history, people wondered what meteors were,” head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office Bill Cooke explains. “Aristotle thought they were gases in the atmosphere! It wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century, in the early 1900s, that people accepted that rocks could fall from the sky.”
The bright trails left by space rocks as they burn up when entering our atmosphere are colloquially known as shooting stars – which aren’t bright twinkling lights that race across the sky as the name would suggest. A similar project to track fireballs called the Prairie Network was set up in the Midwestern U.S. in the 1960s. Scientists photographed the night sky and used brain power to calculate the meteor’s path. The operation was shut down in the mid 1970s, and it wasn’t until now that there’s been a better, cheaper way to find the information, Cooke says.
Each night, three low-light level, black and white video cameras with overlapping fields of view point their lenses up at the sky. The stark contrast makes the dashes of white pop out against the subtle grey background, and the video cameras capture the journey of the space rock as it falls to the ground, hopefully not disintegrated due to harsh forces by the time it touches the Earth.