The Union Recorder

December 19, 2013

OUR SPACE: Meteors: Can you hear me now?

Beate Czogalla
The Union-Recorder

MILLEDGEVILLE — All right, people, when was the last time you heard a meteor pass by?

What’s that? NEVER?!!

Shooting stars generally don’t make noise, right? They come and go in the blink of an eye. A quick streak of light across the dark night sky, and it’s all over.

Sometimes you can see a so-called Earth-grazer, a meteor that skims the Earth’s atmosphere but due to its trajectory hits it just at the right angle to be deflected back into space. Those are the relatively slow moving golden beams of light crossing the sky, and they can be pretty awe-inspiring.

The really big ones, like the one that blew up over Western Russia on Feb. 15, can of course blow up as they come down, and yes, that’ll make a heck of a lot of noise. But your average garden-variety meteor is a split-second spectacle in total silence.

Well, no more.

Enter Space Weather Radio.

We’ve visited the Space Weather website before to learn about sun spots, auroras and the solar wind, and every year there are a few meteor showers worth watching out for. Last weekend it was the Geminids’ turn. As the Earth crosses the debris path of rock comet 3200 Phaethon a good number of dust particles enter our atmosphere as shooting stars. If you missed it (and chances are you might have, since the moon was very bright and that makes those faint light trails hard to see), you can tune in to Space Weather Radio and listen for meteors instead.

How is it done?

Radio engineer Stan Nelson uses a Yagi antenna in New Mexico to detect 54 MHz TV signals reflected from meteor trails. When a meteor passes over his observatory there is a “ping” or echo which sounds like an eerie slow whistle.

When you log on to the station you will hear a brief introduction with a sample sound on what to listen for, and then you are plunged into constant white noise, a sound like a distant waterfall, which is strangely peaceful as a background noise.

I never expected to hear as many meteors as I did — three in the very first minute! Sometimes it’s several minutes of just white noise, and then — there’s the whistle. It’s actually pretty exciting — I felt a little bit like Ellie Arroway (played by the inimitable Jodie Foster) in the movie “Contact”, waiting for a signal from outer space. Only I didn’t get to talk to aliens, but I had meteors talking to me. And considering that they were definitely of extraterrestrial origin, well, that’s just plain cool, right?

So every so often I click on Space Weather Radio and just let it whoosh along in the background while I’m doing other stuff, like writing the OUR SPACE column.

And every little audio visitor from outer space makes me smile.

So when the usual holiday tunes really start getting on your nerves, how about a little meteor music instead?

Try it today at http://spaceweatherradio.com/   

Be patient — just let it run for a while. Your very own meteor will say hi in a few minutes.



Beate Czogalla is the professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at  our_space2@yahoo.com.