NASA installs 'fireball' camera at Tellus Science Museum
by Marie Nesmith
Mar 21, 2011 | 4080 views | 0 0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
David Dundee, astronomy program manager for Tellus Science Museum, inspects the NASA meteor camera recently installed on the building’s roof. Typically, the camera will track meteors 100 miles high. Each day the 
camera’s data is downloaded via the Internet to a NASA computer at Huntsville, Ala.
SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
David Dundee, astronomy program manager for Tellus Science Museum, inspects the NASA meteor camera recently installed on the building’s roof. Typically, the camera will track meteors 100 miles high. Each day the camera’s data is downloaded via the Internet to a NASA computer at Huntsville, Ala. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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On Friday morning, Tellus Science Museum documented its first meteor as it traveled 2,200 mph before burning up about 60 miles high.

With the Cartersville venue joining NASA's network of meteor cameras in the Southeast Thursday, the celestial small body of matter is a prime example of items it could be chronicling throughout the year. Along with Tellus' and the other locations -- Chickamauga, Hunstville, Ala., and Tullahoma, Tenn. -- NASA plans in the near future to have a total of 15 digital cameras installed at sites east of the Mississippi River to triangulate the fireballs' routes.

"What happens is the cameras record bright moving lights in the sky," said David Dundee, astronomy program manager for Tellus. "So airplanes, lightning, a bright car headlight even might trigger it but the event has to happen in two or three cameras for the computer to say, 'Ah ha, there's something there.' So it knows to filter out local things. So if a bird landed on the camera or a spider crawled across the camera -- unless it was a really big spider and was seen in more than one city -- then they would know that was a false reading.

"The very cool thing about this camera is once you detect a bright meteor and it's seen by two or three sites, you can use the information from the different cameras at the different locations to actually calculate the speed of the meteor, what height it began to burn up in the atmosphere, what height it finally totally burned up ... from there, you can calculate the orbit of this object. So you can figure out where in the solar system the object came from. Did it come from the asteroid belt? Was it part of a comet orbit? And the other thing that's even cooler than that is you can actually filter out and figure out if a meteor might have actually made it to the ground, and that's extremely rare. But if this camera were functioning when the Cartersville meteorite came in a couple of years ago -- that's the one we have on display -- we could have figured out where in the solar system it came from. And that would be extremely neat."

Each day the camera's data is downloaded via the Internet to a NASA computer at Huntsville, Ala., he said. The images from the network's cameras also can be viewed by the public online at http://fireballs.ndc.nasa.gov. Installed on top of Tellus' roof, the camera is 8 inches tall and 4 inches wide, and situated inside a small pipe.

"NASA's reason for doing this is that they're actually looking at the safety of [its] astronauts in the space station," Dundee said. "So they're trying to understand where these things are coming from [and the] frequency of these objects falling from space. If there's even a small meteorite that's .04 centimeters in diameter, a tiny thing like that, and it's traveling 60 [to] 70 kilometers a second and an astronaut's out on a space walk -- even something that tiny can puncture a space suit. So knowing about the frequency of these objects [and] where they're coming from is very, very useful."

Typically, he said, the camera will start tracking meteors 100 miles high, with the majority burning up at 40 to 50 miles in the air. To have a good chance of striking the ground in which the camera would pinpoint its projected landing area -- to within 2 miles -- it would need to be slow in speed and detectable at about 15 miles up.

"We were very excited," Dundee said. "This is a project I started working on two years ago. So it's been a long time coming. Working with the government is slow. [There is] paperwork and they had to come out about a year ago to do a site inspection. Actually we were out on the roof at midnight in January. They were taking light readings and stuff. So it's been a long time coming.

"But it was great yesterday," he said on Friday. "Four NASA astronomers came yesterday. They actually did a training session with our education staff. [They] talked about how we could apply this directly into our programs and actually help local teachers and how they can access the site and use it for their classes. So it's going to be a great tool, and we're really excited to have yet another NASA connection."

Encompassing 120,000 square feet at 100 Tellus Drive in Cartersville, Tellus is comprised of four main galleries -- The Weinman Mineral Gallery, The Fossil Gallery, Science in Motion and The Collins Family My Big Backyard -- a 120-seat digital planetarium and an observatory equipped with a 20-inch telescope. Opened in January 2009, the Smithsonian affiliate has attracted more than 400,000 visitors.

The NASA camera installation precedes two upcoming space-related programs at the museum. On Friday, NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson will speak about her adventures in space at 7 p.m. in the banquet halls. She has participated in three space missions, recording more than 42 days in space.

"We think this is just going to be such a great event as far as lectures go," said Tellus Marketing Director Joe Schulman. "It's really a great one for everybody. She's going to be a fantastic speaker and to have somebody of this caliber -- a NASA astronaut, who's been into space, been in the International Space Station -- this is fantastic for us and for the community as well.

"So we're really excited about it. ... With the ending of the space shuttle program this year, there are fewer and fewer people who are going to be around who have been into space in recent years. So it's a neat way for people to find out what it's like to go into space."

Then on April 8 at 7 p.m., Mort Kunstler will discuss his experiences being commissioned by Rockwell International to document the space shuttle program in the 1980s. Patrons also will be able to view the artists' six paintings, portraits and a sketch that he loaned to Tellus more than a year ago.

"He was commissioned by Rockwell, which is the company that developed the space shuttle, to document the development of the shuttle," said Tellus Executive Director Jose Santamaria. "NASA [also] did this during the space program. They commissioned an artist. [So] instead of just having photographs for documenting this great endeavor, they hire artists to give a different perspective. So Rockwell did the same thing. Even then he was pretty well-known as a good historical artist. He had full access to the facilities of Rockwell and he did sketches from the construction of the space shuttle to the test firing of the engines to the first liftoff and the first landing. Then back in the studio he executed the paintings based on a lot of his sketches. We have, I think, one sketch but the paintings are the result of this. It is artistic but it's also an historical documentation of this project.

"We have this artwork that really marks the beginning of the shuttle program as we are now having an astronaut who is representing [the present situation]. They are looking toward the end of the program. So it's almost like we're having both bookends."

Both programs are included in regular museum admission for non-members and are free for members. For more information, call Tellus at 770-606-5700 or visit www.tellusmuseum.org. To ensure seating in the banquet halls, reservations are recommended for Friday's offering with Wilson.