Listening to the Leonid Meteor Shower

This past week on November 17th, the Leonid Meteor Shower sent meteors streaming down on Earth. "Shooting stars," or meteors, are actually bits of debris in space that burn up upon entering the earth's atmosphere at high speed. Technically, the meteors don't run into the Earth, the Earth runs into the meteors.

The trail of debris in space that the Earth encounters every November 17th was laid down by the comet Tempel-Tuttle. The comet orbits the sun and has made many orbits, laying down a trail of dust and debris on each pass. The comet was first recorded in the year 1366 and has an orbit period of 33 years.

This year was not a spectacular show. The peak, the time when earth passes though the densest part of the trail, only produced about 20 meteors per hour. There have been spectacular years when the Leonids produce meteor storms. These tend to occur every 33 years and there can be thousands of meteors per hour. The next storm probably won't be until around the year 2042.

This year, it was cloudy at my home so I "observed" the shower in a completely different way. I listened to it.

Let me explain.

The US Air Force runs the Space Surveillance Radar in Kickapoo, Texas. There's a lot of junk in space and when the government is flying multimillion dollar craft up there they want to keep them safe. Twenty-four hours a day the space radar puts out 800 kilowatts of continuous wave power at 216.98 Mhz. It sounds like a steady tone on a receiver. The primary mission is to monitor everything in orbit. It can detect objects as small as 10 centimeters orbiting at up to 30,000 km above earth. The radar works by having the signal bounce off objects and reflect the signal back to a number of listening stations.

During a meteor shower, meteors streak through the atmosphere and create a trail of ionized dust. The radio signal reflects off this trail and we can hear the signal of the radar change. Space Weather Radio, a private group, has a listening station set up by Stan Nelson on the roof of his house a couple hundred miles away in Roswell, NM. Space Weather Radio streams the signal over the web and you can listen in. During a meteor shower, you can recognize meteors by the sound.

I recoded for an hour and successfully heard the signature sound of meteors streaking through the atmosphere. For sure a cool experience on an otherwise cloudy night.

More Information
Hear recordings of meteors from the 2010 Leonids
Listen to Space Weather Radio Live

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