Meteor Detection and Radio Astronomy

Are we seeing an abnormal number of meteor strikes?

No, It is normal for thousands of meteors, to burn up in the atmosphere every single day. Our detection screens are always quite active but peak to extremes during a meteor shower. This has been going on for millions of years and our atmosphere has done an excellent job in protecting us. In fact there used to be many more impacts of much larger objects in Earth's early history, today we live in quieter times. 

Thanks to modern detection technology, the internet and mobile communications, there are many more events reported than their used to be. It does not mean there are more events actually happening overall. Most events happen unnoticed in remote locations such as over the ocean, the poles or unpopulated land as this makes up most of the Earth's surface.

It could also be argued that meteors are an irregular and evolving phenomenon and therefore there is really no "normal".

What part of the sky does your meteor detection system cover?

That depends on what you mean by sky!.

Since the Earth is not stationary relative to space, the area of sky (in terms of our window on space) that we experience is changing constantly. We are travelling at 67,000 miles per hour through space in a slightly elliptical orbit around our Sun and often pass through dust or comet debris along the way. Earth is also spinning at 1,040 miles per hour (at the equator) during its orbit. Because of this, all of us will experience a meteor shower as we pass through regions of space debris no matter where we are on Earth.

You cannot predict exactly when or where meteors will happen. But meteors are most prevalent on the leading face of Earth in the direction of our orbit. But, because the Earth rotates, the region of ground facing the direction of orbit is constantly changing, so our radar system is effectively looking in all directions depending on time of day, like a big rotating antenna.

In simple terms of local geography, our receiving systems view the sky over Northern Europe.

How do you detect a meteor strike?

We utilise a high power VHF radar. The ground receiving stations are hidden from the transmitted signal so they only receive a reflected signal from space. This reflection comes from the ionised gas that is created as space dust and debris as it enters Earth's atmosphere and burns up.

What is the difference between a meteor, a meteorite and an asteroid?

A meteor is a meteoroid object which is in the process of vaporising in the atmosphere. It is visible as the white trail you see as a shooting star. A meteoroid object is a small piece of comet dust or a fragment of an asteroid that will create the meteor trail. A meteorite is the name given to a meteoroid object that has survived it's journey through the atmosphere and reached the surface of Earth.

An asteroid is a natural solar system object that is more commonly found orbiting the Sun in the asteroid belt, Their orbits are affected by the big planets like Jupiter and could be pulled into the path of our own planet if we are very unlucky. If one entered the atmosphere it would burn up creating a large fireball meteor. If it was large enough and survived the journey through the atmosphere, it could cause significant damage. It would take a very large asteroid to wipe out life on Earth, but asteroids of this size are are much easier to locate and track many years in advance.

What is a fireball?

This is a large meteor event that sometimes explodes in the atmosphere. It is also known as a Bolide or Superbolide if it is very bright. Fireball events are a fairly common occurrence, Bolides and Superbolides are happening on average at a rate of typically one or two major recorded events per year. This is an average so you may find several happening in one year such as happened in 2013, with quieter periods in between. It is also possible that there are more events that go unnoticed, when they happen in very remote locations.

Are meteors dangerous?

Almost all meteors are the result of the complete burning up of a small meteoroid in the atmosphere. Some meteoroids do make it to Earth as a meteorite, mostly landing in the ocean or unpopulated areas as water accounts for most of Earth's surface area. They can sometimes be found on the ground and are fairly rare and quite collectible. You'd be very unlucky to actually be struck by one as the odds are infinitesimally small.

Larger meteorites, superbolides, or small asteroids which can cause a major fireball event, have occasionally made landfall in populated areas. No one has been killed, but the explosion or sonic boom they cause can cause significant damage such as shattered windows sometimes resulting in injuries from flying glass. Such incidents are very rare indeed as most will statistically miss populated areas completely. In 2013 the Chelyabinsk meteor caused an air-burst above a populated area. Some people were injured from flying glass.

Has anyone ever been hit by a meteorite?

Yes, Ann Hodges in Alabama in 1954. She survived with some significant bruising! These events are so incredibly rare. There are many greater risks in life which we don't even worry about at all, so meteorites hitting us should be right at the bottom of the list!

What else can you detect?

With our meteor radar system we can detect the Moon and compute how fast it is moving towards or away from us by the Doppler effect. We can also detect satellites and the ISS. Other work includes detection of solar flares, solar CME events, variations of the Earth's magnetic field and natural radio signals generated by Jupiter.

Are we about to be destroyed by an invisible planet colliding with Earth?

No! - There is no secret doomsday planet hiding behind the sun! It didn't happen in 1995, 1999 or 2012 either!

There are nearly 2,000 so called potentially hazardous asteroids (PHAs) which have been classified thanks to many years of work by observers. This is ongoing work, but so far only one of these is identified as having any real chance of colliding with Earth any time soon, and that's in the year 2135. Even for this asteroid, the odds of an actual collision are very very small indeed, but it is likely to pass at a distance a little closer than the moon.

What is Planet 9 or Planet-X ? 

The so called 9th planet or Planet-X is often talked about, and it is has been proposed by some astronomers that there should be at least one further planet as yet undiscovered in our solar system. This is because there are still unexplained gravitational influences affecting trans-neptunian objects. If discovered, any such planet would be orbiting our Sun at such a distance that it could not easily be seen with a telescope, and is unlikely to have any affect on the Earth.  A candidate Kuiper Belt Object was proposed by Mike Brown of Caltech in early 2016, to explain the solar system anomalies, but its existence has not yet been confirmed.  Planetary orbits at such large distances are very slow, taking a long time to orbit the Sun, making detecting them difficult.

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Are we alone in the universe?

There are millions, if not billions of parameters that are needed to support complex life on Earth. It is only possible because there are so many galaxies, planets, solar systems etc. that eventually the perfect combination occurs. Human life, or even conscious life is so extremely unlikely that you are probably never going to meet a humanoid alien. It's probably only by chance that we ever evolved this way, so any alien life, if it exists, is probably completely different.

Scientists look for the presence of water on other planets as a first step for finding possible life, but it takes much more than that for life to exist. Personally I suspect life is very rare out there. In view of the sheer number of possibilities, I suspect that we are not alone although it is unlikely that we would ever meet an alien simply due to the laws of physics and the distances involved.

When you realise just how unlikely life is, you can't help but wonder why some people treat each other and their planet so badly!. Our planet could very well host the only life in the universe so we would do a lot better by working together to solve the bigger issues that affect us all.

If you have any questions not answered here, please feel free to contact Meteorscan.


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