Regional
4:51 pm
Mon June 21, 2010

NMSU Building System To Track Meteors

Las Cruces – New Mexico State University researchers are developing a new technology that may lead to greater understanding of meteoric events in the Earth's atmosphere by recording images of events that occur in the night sky while most of us sleep.

In the fall of 2009, Associate Professor David Voelz and Research Assistant Professor Laura Boucheron, both of the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, received a three-year award from the National Nuclear Security Administration. The $825,000 award will fund the development of a field network of an all-sky camera system intended to monitor, track and analyze atmospheric meteors and other events.

The system will provide a database that can assist satellite operators in separating natural events from man-made events. Astrophysicists can use the information received from the cameras in the study of meteor phenomenology.

"We will be able to get trajectories, velocity and brightness," Voelz said. "From this information, the meteor's parent object and its orbit around the sun can be determined. Beyond the science, the information collected is also useful for threat analysis for orbiting spacecraft and in corroborating observations of meteors and fireballs by other systems such as Earth-observing satellites or radio receivers.

"We have seven cameras in New Mexico that are up and running, but there are still issues that need to be worked out," he said.

Two of the seven cameras are mounted on the roof of NMSU's Thomas and Brown Hall. The others are located in Albuquerque and Socorro.

"Right now, people at many locations have volunteered to host our cameras," Voelz said. "Our hope is to get as many volunteer sites as we can."

Voelz and Boucheron are using small, inexpensive, off-the-shelf black-and-white security video cameras that are mounted into a custom environmental housing, fashioned from PVC pipe, with an acrylic dome for viewing. The upward-looking, wide-angle view cameras run all the time as in a security application; however, they are not sensitive enough to capture meteor events in the light of day. The software that determines the events and connects to the network is custom.

The data collected is standard video streamed onto the computer. When an event occurs, the computer marks the time and moves the short event video segment, typically a few seconds, to an event folder to be saved. Later, the video and still frames, made by adding up the video frames, can be analyzed.

The cameras trigger on objects that change position from frame to frame, so they record planes, satellites, birds, bugs, car lights, etc., along with meteors.

"After the data makes it to our server, we will be able to automatically remove some of the false-trigger data by correlating events from cameras in different locations," said Voelz. "Removing planes and satellites is a little harder, but there are ways to separate them from the meteors; for example, planes tend to blink, and we can look for that," Voelz said.

Voelz and Boucheron plan to develop a website with access to the archived data and make the data available for processing and analysis to people who are interested in viewing the recordings.

"Hopefully, after we work out technical issues, we will be able to network with other cameras throughout the world in order to see what's going on elsewhere," Boucheron said.

"There are cameras all over the world. There are about 70 cameras in clusters throughout the U.S. there are some in Colorado, Florida, California and Alabama but they are not networked together," said Voelz.

One challenge is determining the coordinates of objects in the sky in relation to Earth. Using charts of known star position and triangulation among three cameras, Voelz and Boucheron are able to determine the location and altitude of objects in the sky. Two cameras on the ground spaced about 400 kilometers apart can just see the same meteor events. So the detection radius is roughly 200 kilometers, but it can be bigger if the camera is in a dark place or on a mountain.

Voelz and Boucheron are very confident that this project will be successful and hope that NMSU eventually becomes the host site.

"If we can get things running and get useful information, we hope that NMSU will become the center for receiving meteor event information and that, in turn, will bring in more cameras and more interested scientists," Voelz said.

If you would like to take a first-hand look at Voelz and Boucheron's research, visit http://skysentinel.nmsu.edu.