Monday, January 23, 2012

"The Sky is Falling!" (or Tracking Meteors in the Night Sky)

Photo Courtesy: Navicore
The first new Citizen Science project of the new year is "Meteor Counter", an iPhone application released by NASA researchers right before Christmas.  I've had a chance to play with it some and think you'll find it as interesting as we do.

Meteor Counter's main goal is identifying and reporting meteors whenever, and wherever, they are spotted.  And it performs this job very well. When you spot a meteor streaking through the sky, just open the application, identify the part of the sky you say it in, and use the "piano-key" interface to report its magnitude (brightness).  Time, date, and location information are automatically provided by the application itself.

All this information is vital to understanding our space environment and collecting data on events that can't be captured with individual telescopes.  Meteors arrive every day and the only way to track them all is by crowdsourcing it to users across the globe (that's us!).  This isn't just academic information...there is much we still don't know.  So our hopes for discovering new meteor showers, identifying comet debris streams, and mapping the distribution of meteoroids around the Earth are increased the more people take advantage of this application.

This is also one of those interesting project applications with a straightforward goal application that actually has additional depth underneath it.  It can alert you to upcoming meteor showers in your area, collect more detailed trajectory data from advanced users, and record audio of the event with additional information.  So you can get as much or as little as you want out of this application depending on your interest and expertise.

Getting Started is Easy:
  • Visit the NASA Meteor Counter web site to learn more about the project and for access to the Apple App Store.  Alternatively you can head straight to the App Store from your iPhone or by clicking here.
  • Download the App to your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch.  Currently there is not an Android version but that may change in the future.
  • Set up the App the first time you open it.  Provide your name, e-mail address, and level of experience so it knows what functionality to provide and so your results can be accurately tracked.
  • Once set up the app will provide brief instructions on how to make observations.  Step one is reporting the current sky conditions, both how clear the sky is and how bright the dimmest stars are.
  • You can now begin the full observation session.  A map of the night sky will appear divided into seven "piano key" segments, as shown below.  Whenever you spot a meteor just tap on the key corresponding to its brightness.  For example, a bright fireball might get a "-2" score, while a barely visible meteorite would receive a "+4" score. 
  • If something particularly interesting is happening, or if you just want to shout excitedly to the world, click on the microphone to record your thoughts.  When the observations are automatically uploaded to the project scientists, the data and any recordings will be sent as well.
  • That's all there is to it!  Of course you go deeper by enabling news feeds and alerts for upcoming showers, but you don't have to.  All you need to do is have fun.
Photo Courtesy: MeteorCounter.org

Finally, if you are still uncertain about how to participate, watch the video below for additional instructions and more information on how scientists will use the data you collect.  I'm sure you'll agree it's an exciting project to take part in!

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