Sounds of a meteor shower

By Phil Plait | October 3, 2011 9:28 am

In August, I wrote about how you can listen to meteors: radar bounced off their ion trail can be converted to sound, making eerie, creepy noises.

Via astronaut Ron Garan comes this video of recordings made by the U.S. Air Force Space Surveillance Radar in Texas during the Perseid meteor shower. It’s very, very cool:

As I wrote in the earlier post, here’s how this works:

You’re not really hearing sound, of course: meteors burn up in our atmosphere at a height of 100 km or so, too high to directly carry sound waves. But the Air Force has a radar surveillance facility in Texas that beams radio waves into the sky. When a bit of cosmic fluff streaks through our sky, the ionized trail it leaves reflects the radio waves, producing an echo. This radio wave is then translated into sound, so you can effectively hear a meteor!

The initial "whoosh" is from the meteor itself, and the dying whistling sound is from the ionized gas it leaves behind, which slowly recombines and fades.

… which is all well and good, but science aside, all I could think of while listening to that was the soundtrack to Ren and Stimpy walking along the landscape inside the hideous vortex of the black hole.

Related posts:

A meteor’s lingering tale
Listen in on the Perseid meteor shower
Saturn, the forbidden planet
Phoenix sings

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Humor
MORE ABOUT: meteor, Perseid, radar, Ron Garan

Comments (15)

  1. Yup. That’s eerie and very neat. :-)

    Apparently, our whole planet sounds pretty spooky as heard from space via satellite radio too. (Click on my name here for that via Youtube – posted by jpagel as “How Earth Sounds from Space” if that helps.)

  2. Grand Lunar

    Stangely enough, it reminds me of how on AM radio, you can hear the crackle of lightning when it flashes (like Cassini did at Saturn). I often found that cool.

    Pretty cool stuff! I figured the pitch after the WHOOSH was a lingering ion trail.

  3. shunt1

    I have been doing that since 2006 and think nothing of it. Just something I do as a hobby astronomer.

    My major problem was with airplanes anywhere within a 100 mile radius. The spectral (and sound) signatures are different, but trying to teach a computer the difference was frustrating. Every airplane was detected and it drove me nuts.

    Side note: This is how the Serbs were able to detect and shoot down an American stealth fighter. If you understand how radio waves reflect from an object, then you will realize how simple this is.

  4. shunt1

    You need a SSB radio that can be tuned to remote TV stations that are over your horizon. Since the TV stations are over the horizon, it should be impossible to recieve the signal unless something in the upper atmosphere can reflect it.

    With a quality SSB radio, you can measure the Doppler velocity of the object.

    Total cost for this type of equipment would be around $400, depending upon which SSB radio you purchase.

    Lessons learned: Beg your neighbor for his obsolete TV antenna and point it straight up! That will narrow the field of view and reduce the aircraft signals.

  5. “Sorry, this video is unavailable from your location” – I just hate this fake globalization.

    Do you know where can I see this Ren and Stimpy clip?

  6. Nigel Depledge

    Heh. Marcin (7) cannot view the video because of living in the wrong part of the world, and I can’t view it because of our draconian firewall at work. And possibly also living in the wrong part of the world. (Instead of “this video is unavaiable from your location”, I get “your request to view this webpage has been logged and will be audited”).

    Anyhow, I’ve never heard meteor scatter, but I have heard SSB signals propagated by aurora. It was seriously spooky.

  7. Tom K

    “You’re not really hearing sound, of course: meteors burn up in our atmosphere at a height of 100 km or so, too high to directly carry sound waves.”

    However under rare circumstances, some people have “heard” meteors. I was outside one night with a friend of mine and we both saw a bright meteor. He said, “Wow! Did you hear that?” I said “No, and neither did you.” He was confused and I explained that while meteors could sometimes produce sound (from their sonic boom, or possibly from exploding), there would of course be a delay before it would be heard, just like lightning and thunder.

    However he had distinctly heard a sound immediately when the meteor flashed. The best we can figure is that his metal glasses frame had picked up radio waves and produced a sound that he could hear, but I couldn’t.

  8. Ian S

    @ tom K:
    Or tooth fillings or bridge work, my dad’s a dentist and has come across people who are able to hear radio stations through their tooth work, weird but there you go..

  9. Keith Bowden

    You had me at Ren & Stimpy. Joy!

  10. Lee

    Sounds a bit like an air-acetylene torch, i would image from the gases and material burning up at high temperatures. Just a lot creepier!


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