Shooting stars, or meteors, happen when interplanetary dust falls through our atmosphere, disintegrating and burning up as it goes. The Earth is subject to a constant influx of many tonnes of this dust, and it provides us with an opportunity to study the outer reaches of our atmosphere.

A 33.2 MHz meteor detection radar is part of the suite of atmosphere observing instruments at Davis.

Meteor detection radars, such as the one supplied by Atmospheric Radar Systems, make it possible to measure components of the wind and temperature near the top of the middle atmosphere (85 to 95 km). They also allow us to learn more about the quantity of meteoric material that is entering that part of the atmosphere and the rate at which it is deposited.

What the radar does

Dust particles and small rock fragments float in space near the Earth’s orbit. Some of these are captured by the Earth’s gravity and fall rapidly into our atmosphere as meteors. As they fall, the friction between the atmosphere and the meteor creates a trail: a ‘shooting star’ in the case of the bigger fragments. Although short lived, these trails can be detected with a radar.

The weaker trails (from small dust particles) are of interest to atmospheric physicists because they do not change the atmosphere much as they disintegrate. Instead, they create a passive ‘target’ or tracer that a radar can detect. The target exists long enough for the radar to be able to trace the movement of air. The signal from the meteor decays in a way that tells us about the temperature, pressure and density. These little pieces of information are enough to build a picture of what is going on in the outer reaches of our atmosphere.

Meteor radars continuously send radio pulses into the sky and look for returned signals with the characteristics of a meteor trail. These include a rapid rise in the returned signal from heights near 80 to 100 km, and a slower (but still rapid) decay back to the starting signal level. The trails last long enough for multiple pulses to be reflected from them and for its motion in the wind to be detected. By measuring the time of arrival of the signal at five receiving antennas, the direction from which it came can also be calculated.

The meteor trail is most visible to the radar after its diameter is half of the transmitted wavelength (a characteristic of radio waves related to their frequency). The meteor trail expands from its dust particle sized beginning, in a manner that is dependent on pressure and temperature. So the speed with which the meteor signal decays can be related to these atmospheric parameters at the height of the trail (between 80 km and 100 km up).

6 antennas sit in Heidemann valley behind Davis and enable us to make meteor measurements. One is used to transmit pulses over a broad part of the sky and 5 (such as the one pictured here) are used for detecting the returned signal.

Recent observations

Radar reflections from meteor trails are strongest perpendicular to the trail. Most meteors fall to earth at a shallow angle to the horizontal. This means that meteor trails are generally detected a long way from overhead at zenith angles of about 30 to 40 degrees. This graph of echo directions of arrival shows each meteor detection as a dot.

Meteor detection sky map.
Meteor detection sky map, recorded by the Davis meteor radar.

The range, time of day and height of meteor echoes for the 33 MHz radar show most of the echoes come from near 90 km altitude. We can use the rate of meteor detections to learn about the flux of meteoric material into the earth’s atmosphere. This is of interest in studies of atmospheric composition as well as in meteor astronomy.

Height events
The height of events recorded by the Davis meteor radar.

Meteors are detected often enough to allow for hourly determinations of the wind between 80 km and 100 km. This plot of the wind speed and direction shows the speed and the direction of the wind as coloured arrows. It corresponds to a compass dial with North to the top.

Horizontal velocity field
Speed and the direction of the wind between 80 km and 100 km, recorded by the Davis meteor radar.