Tellus' fireball camera detects Martian meteor
by Marie Nesmith
Sep 02, 2011 | 2531 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tellus Science Museum’s fireball camera documents its first meteor traveling from the vicinity of Mars. Tellus Science Museum/Special
Tellus Science Museum’s fireball camera documents its first meteor traveling from the vicinity of Mars. Tellus Science Museum/Special
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On Monday morning, Tellus Science Museum documented its first meteor hailing from the vicinity of Mars. Captured at 3:58 a.m., the fireball is the brightest and most noteworthy object Tellus has detected since the Cartersville venue joined NASA's network of meteor cameras in the Southeast in March.

"What made this rather peculiar not only because it was so bright and captured by all the cameras in the network but, when you get more than one camera tracking this thing, you can actually track back where it came from," said David Dundee, astronomy program manager for Tellus. "It seems to have come from the vicinity of Mars. So that either means it's a piece of an asteroid that was orbiting Mars maybe from a collision near Mars [or] perhaps it's from something that got blasted off the surface of Mars from an impact on Mars. But whatever it is, it came from that direction.

"The meteor was traveling, when it entered the atmosphere, at about 52,800 mph and it came in over Duluth, just outside of Atlanta. At that time it was 65 miles up. Then it kind of fizzled out over an area between Stockbridge and McDonough at about 26 miles up. There were some radar observations of this but they were kind of inconclusive whether or not any of the bits of debris actually reached the surface. That's kind of a question mark -- whether anything came down or not. It seems from the video that this thing broke into pieces but from our camera, it's difficult to tell because this thing is so bright. It almost overpowers our camera."

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.

Each day the camera's data is downloaded via the Internet to a NASA computer at Huntsville, Ala., Dundee 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.

"It's part of our goal to participate in real science," said Tellus Executive Director Jose Santamaria. "So we have our seismograph here tracking earthquake activity, and [we now have] a meteor camera tracking some of the really cool celestial activity that occurs over here. The purpose [of NASA's network] is if you have three cameras that can track the same meteor, you can triangulate and then you determine where it came from, first of all.

"And second, you can determine all kinds of things like speed and how high it was, but you can also determine that if there's a possibility that the meteor did not burn up and actually fell to earth. ... By triangulating the three images, you can determine within a square mile or so where it may have fallen. So how cool would that be? People find meteorites but very seldom right after it falls. So we can actually track it from the very beginning of it entering our atmosphere and eventually find the rock. That would be pretty cool, too."

Typically, Dundee said, the camera starts 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.

"On an average night, we get anywhere from six to eight meteors," Dundee said. "Now the real bright fireballs are a little bit more rare. The last super bright one we had was in May but every few months we get a bright one. This one wins the prize as the brightest one we've ever seen. This is really bright.

"Ninety-nine percent of what we see comes from the asteroid belt. That's where these meteors are coming from. So we're picking up meteors that are a part of meteor showers. A lot of them are from old comets and that's kind of routine stuff that we expect to find. Real bright ones like this are unexpected. They come through and [you say], 'Wow, look at that.' So this one here, what makes this one even more unusual is the fact that it's not coming from the asteroid belt. It's not from an old comet. It's coming from Mars. So that makes it unusual. You don't get debris coming from that direction very often."