You are on page 1of 4

observers log

Observing Meteors on Your FM Dial


With an ordinary radio you can hear meteors hundreds of kilometers away.

By Philip Gebhardt

receiver in your living room and an antenna. If you dont have an outdoor FM
antenna, you can purchase a simple, inexpensive one for indoor use at many electronics stores. If that seems too elaborate,
you can sit in your car and listen for meteors on your car radio. With a basic
setup and a little patience, you can detect
meteors day or night any time of the year.

here was a time when astronomy was limited to visible


light. Not anymore. Among the
options available to todays amateurs are the long wavelengths of radio
signals. And one of the easiest projects in
radio astronomy is the detection of meteors. In fact, its so easy that you may have
already heard meteors without knowing
what they were! In anticipation of the
Leonid shower (November issue, page
102), now is an ideal time to try your
hand at detecting meteors on the radio.

chart recorder, or computer) to your receiver and check the data later.
Third, its easy to get started.
When most people think of radio astronomy they imagine large parabolic antennas such as those of the Very Large
Array (VLA) in Socorro, New Mexico.
Readers eyes glaze over at references to
parametric amplifiers, antenna beamwidth,
feedline attenuation, impedance matching,
and receiver bandwidth. But you dont
have to deal with any of this to participate.
All you require to get started is the FM

Radio Meteors
Meteors themselves do not generate the
signals you hear. As a meteoroid enters

Why Radio?
Much of the interest in amateur radio astronomy, and detection of meteors specifically, centers on the ability to observe
when its overcast or even raining. You
can use radio in broad daylight or when
the full Moon makes visual observing
difficult. And for astronomers who face
bitterly cold winters, meteor detection
can be an indoor activity.
There are other compelling reasons to
get involved with radio astronomy. First,
while the visible-light region of the electromagnetic spectrum falls between 4000
and 7500 angstroms spanning less than
a factor of two in wavelength the radio
spectrum is much wider. You can hear
radio signals from Jupiter at wavelengths
of 10 to 15 meters. Look for solar activity
from 5 meters down to centimeter wavelengths. And various molecules in space
can be heard at even shorter wavelengths.
Second, unlike visual observing you
dont need to do your radio work at the
time of the event. You can connect any
recording device (a tape recorder, strip
Detecting meteors via radio waves is easy! All
you need is a car FM radio or a simple antenna and an FM receiver. The brief signals youll
receive are transmissions from distant radio
stations bouncing off ionized meteor trails.
For best results use an outdoor, rotatable FM
antenna.
108

December 1997 Sky & Telescope

FM radio station

1997 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Earths atmosphere and vaporizes, it produces not only a streak of light but also a
trail of ionized gas. Because the trail is
ionized it reflects radio waves. Normally
the signal from an FM station radiates
away into space, but if it encounters a
meteoroids ionized column, part of it
gets reflected back to Earth. Like a visual
meteor, the reflected radio signal is shortlived. The signal you hear may last from a
fraction of a second to several seconds.
More signals can be heard using an
outdoor, rotatable FM (or FM/TV) antenna on a tower than with an indoor antenna. It might seem that the antenna
should be steerable in both azimuth and
elevation, but aiming it at the horizon
will provide good initial results. Nor does
the antenna need to be large. Japanese astronomers have had success with 5- and
7-element antennas, as described in the
May 1976 Sky & Telescope, page 359.
When using an outdoor antenna, particularly one intended only for TV reception,
check for an FM trap (a small box) connecting the antenna feedline to the receiver. If one is there you must remove it.
Observing
Now that your radio observatory is functional, tune your receiver to any unoccupied frequency. FM frequencies are assigned at 200 kilohertz intervals between
88.1 and 107.9 megahertz. A receiver with
a digital readout will help you tune more
accurately. If you cant find a frequency
not being used, select one on which the
station is weak.
When the receiver is properly tuned,
most of the time youll hear nothing but
a steady hiss. When a meteoroid produces an ionized trail in the right part of
the sky, youll briefly hear the signal from
a distant FM station. The signal may be
so short that all you hear is a brief
ping. Or you may hear several words or
a few notes of music. Often the reflected
signal will be as strong as a local station.
These radio reflections are only one of
the signal types youll hear on the FM

of a particle as small as 1100 gram on a dark


night, but dust grains of only 10 7 gram
can be detected using radio methods.
Meteor showers must be approached
differently, as youll need to know the peak
date. The dates of major showers are given
in Sky & Telescope as well as in SkyWatch,
Sky Publishings annual guide to astronomy. Data for additional showers can be
found in reference books such as the Royal
Astronomical Society of Canadas annual
Observers Handbook. And a list of meteor showers published by the International Meteor Organization is on the Internet
at http://www.imo.net/calendar/cal97.html
or /cal98.html.
A key piece of data to obtain from
these sources is the showers duration.
For example, the upcoming Leonids peak
on November 17th. But the shower lasts
four days, so you should also observe
several days before and after the peak.
And there are daytime showers throughout the year that can be observed only by
radio. Among them are the Arietids, the
Zeta Perseids, and the Beta Taurids.
Both the antenna direction and the time
are important considerations during mete-

broadcast band, but their fast appearance


and short duration make them easy to
identify. Signals you can eliminate include ones that slowly rise out of the
noise and others that rise quickly but remain strong for minutes or hours.
You also need to know when to listen.
As with visual observing, you have two
options. You can listen for either sporadic meteors or meteor showers. No
matter how you observe them, sporadic
meteors follow the same pattern. The
maximum hourly rate occurs at approximately 6 a.m. local time each day, the
minimum at 6 p.m. Keep in mind that
the rate does not drop to zero at 6 p.m.
at midlatitudes the ratio of the maximum to minimum is about 4 to 1. Since
sporadic meteors are unpredictable, the
simplest approach is to point your antenna south in the early morning hours
and listen for signals as Earth sweeps up
meteoroids in its path.
While the number of signals you hear
will depend on your equipment, one of
the advantages of listening to meteors is
that you can hear ones too faint to see.
With the naked eye you can see the arrival

Sporadic Meteoroids Hitting Earth Per Day


Mass
(grams)
Survive passage through
Earths atmosphere

10,000

Radius
(cm)
8

Detectable by visual
and radio

1,000
100
10
1
0.1
0.01

4
2
0.8
0.4
0.2
0.08

Detectable by radio

10 3
10 4
10 5
10 6
10 7

0.04
0.02
0.008
0.004
0.002

Totally
disintegrated
in upper
atmosphere

Not detectable by radio

10 810 13

0.00040.0002

Number
(per day)
10
100
1,000
10,000
105
106
107
108
109
1010
1011
1012
about 1020

Courtesy Meteor Communications Corporation. Reprinted with permission.

1997 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Sky & Telescope December 1997

109

Advertisement

Relative noise level

Signal level

ca, many operating 24


hours a day. Data about
Meteor Signal
Signal
Signal
the stations are readily
rises
decays
available. FM Atlas is a
rapidly
exponentially
useful reference that lists
station location, frequenNoise
cy, power, and antenna
Time
height. (It is available for
Radio broadcasts reflected by meteor trails rise above the $12 from the author,
background noise very rapidly. About 90 percent of them last Bruce Elving, at P.O. Box
only a fraction of a second to a few seconds before dropping 336, Esko, MN 55733.) For
off. The decay is exponential, though this can be very difficult example, given a choice of
to detect on a brief signal. The other 10 percent last longer several unoccupied frebut may exhibit rapid in-and-out fading.
quencies, you can select
the one with the most
or showers. You can use a planisphere to high-power stations in the desired direcmake rough predictions of the radiants lo- tion. Look for stations between 700 and
cation in your sky. For an antenna pointed 2,100 kilometers from your location.
at the horizon, best results will be obtained
when the shower radiant is between 30 Other Options
and 60 above the horizon (the optimum The FM band doesnt provide the only
position is 45). As Joseph Lynch explained monitoring opportunities. Meteors can be
in the August 1992 issue of Sky & Tele- detected using a television. Channels 2
scope, page 223, you should point your an- through 6 (54 through 88 megahertz)
tenna in a direction perpendicular to the provide the best TV opportunities. (Meteradiant. . . . When the radiant is in the northeast, the
Mainly artificial Mainly cosmic
better listening directions
below 12 MHz
above 12 MHz
40
Background
are northwest and southNoise
east of you; when it crosses
to the northwestern part of
20
TV
the sky, you can hear betFM
ter to the southwest and
0
northeast.
2.5
5
10
20
40
80
160
The FM broadcast band
Frequency (megahertz)
provides excellent opportunities to detect meteors Your setup for the radio detection of meteors picks up backbecause of the abundant ground noise as well. Some is cosmic in origin, some is artifihigh-power stations scat- cial. The noise level increases at lower frequencies, making
tered across North Ameri- meteor reception below about 20 MHz impractical.
November and December Meteor Showers
Shower

Peak
(UT)

Duration
(Days)

Guidelines for Observing Direction


and Time (Local)
North-South

NW-SE
3:30 a.m.4:30 a.m.

S Taurids

Nov. 3

30

10:30 p.m.11:30 p.m.

N Taurids

Nov. 13

30

11:00 p.m.12:30 a.m.

East-West
4:00 a.m.5:30 a.m.

5:00 a.m.6:30 a.m.


5:00 a.m.6:30 a.m.

5:30 a.m.7:00 a.m.


Leonids

Nov. 17

10:00 p.m.11:30 p.m.

4:30 a.m.5:30 a.m.

5:00 a.m. 6:30 a.m.


Geminids

Dec. 14

8:00 p.m.10:00 p.m.

9:30 p.m.11:00 p.m.

3:30 a.m.5:30 a.m.


Ursids

Dec. 22

6:30 p.m.8:30 p.m.

7:00 p.m.11:30 p.m.


1:30 a.m.9:00 a.m.
4:00 p.m.6:30 p.m.

110

December 1997 Sky & Telescope

1997 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

or detection requires an external antenna;


it will not work on cable TV.) Select the
lowest unused channel in your area. While
meteor detection is possible on the higher
TV channels, signals there will be much
weaker and shorter. This is because a signals duration is inversely proportional to
the square of the frequency, while its amplitude is inversely proportional to the 32
power of the frequency. This suggests you
should select the lowest frequency possible, but keep in mind that as the frequency decreases, both cosmic and artificial
noise increase. The approximate lower
limit for meteor detection is 20 MHz.
The other difficulty with frequencies
outside the FM and TV bands is the
scarcity of stations and their unpredictable
transmission times. Although there are listening opportunities at lower frequencies,
these restrictions plus the need for receivers that tune to these frequencies make
them uninviting to beginners.
There are many radio meteor observing
projects for amateurs. For instance you can
determine the hourly variation for sporadic meteors throughout the day or the
variation of daily rates over the year. Much
work has been done by amateur radio operators; consequently a wealth of information has appeared over the years in amateur radio publications such as QST and
Satellite Times. In addition, the Society of
Amateur Radio Astronomers (SARA) has a
BBS (608-835-9605) and a World Wide
Web site at http://wbs.net/sara.htm.

Advertisement

Philip Gebhardts articles have appeared in


the Observers Handbook, Radio Astronomy,
and The Practical Observer, DX Ontario.

Radiant
R.A.
Dec.
SW-NE
11:00 p.m.1:00 a.m.

3h 24m

+14

11:30 p.m.12:30 a.m.

3h 55m

+23

11:00 p.m.midnight

10h 11m

+22

5:00 a.m.6:30 a.m.

7h 30m

+33

5:00 a.m.7:00 a.m.

14h 28m

+75

1997 Sky Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Sky & Telescope December 1997

111