Fireballs Aotearoa meteor detector | The MagPi #121

A chance to expand meteor monitoring to New Zealand was made far simpler with the aid of Raspberry Pi. Rosie Hattersley reports in the latest issue of The MagPi, out now.

The project is already detecting plenty of meteor activity in the southern hemisphere, as this open-source meteor map reveals
The project is already detecting plenty of meteor activity in the southern hemisphere, as this open-source meteor map reveals

The excitingly named Fireballs Aotearoa is an ambitious research project that aims to make good on the Global Meteor Network’s aim of ensuring no meteor is undetected. The GMN’s worldwide meteor and meteorite tracking endeavours already had sites spread across Europe and the US, but few in the Southern Hemisphere. With international news coverage of a fireball over southern England in March 2021 that was successfully tracked by citizen scientists, there has been a significant increase in the number of meteor cameras in the UK and beyond. A Fireballs Aotearoa outreach programme involving New Zealand-based astronomers and meteor researchers generated much excitement among would-be space scientists.

The meteor camera network will monitor the skies over the whole of New Zealand
The meteor camera network will monitor the skies over the whole of New Zealand

This online presentation given by Jim Rowe explains how a camera attached to a Raspberry Pi locks on to a fireball as it travels across the sky, focusing on the object itself and only processing data relating to its constantly changing location. Raspberry Pi has sufficient processing bandwidth to live-track and report the meteor’s location. Since multiple cameras across a region track the same meteor’s journey, it’s possible to triangulate its final destination and work out with some accuracy where it must have landed, and potentially recover it, for further study, explains Jim. 

A Raspberry Pi 4 or 3B+ controls each setup, identifies the meteor within a frame, and saves only this part of each 25 fps image to its SD card
A Raspberry Pi 4 or 3B+ controls each setup, identifies the meteor within a frame, and saves only this part of each 25 fps image to its SD card

New horizons

Raspberry Pi and Sony camera lenses have become the de facto hardware, lowering the cost of setting up a meteor camera to less than £200. Expanding coverage in Scotland and New Zealand is important for Jim Rowe of the UK Fireball Alliance. Jim was incredibly excited when Dr James Scott of the University of Otago succeeded in getting funding for the first ten meteor camera kits for use in New Zealand, and helped acquire 20 more Raspberry Pi computers for meteor tracking and university use with a grant from the MBIE Curious Minds Participatory Science Platform. A key part of the funding pitch is the direct link with schools and their access to the project data. James says the goal is to record meteors on every clear night – a single camera in Invercargill picked up 114 meteorites crossing the sky one evening in early March – with students able to log in at any time to see what has crossed ‘their’ night sky and incorporate that in their schoolwork.

UK Fireball Alliance’s James Rowe’s talk on meteor tracking showed how Raspberry Pi-powered cameras helped triangulate locations
Multiple camera systems are cross-referenced to aid the recover of falling meteors

“Rather than simply recording pictures of meteors, the idea is to collect science-grade data that can inform researchers, capturing information about meteor orbits, frequency, flux, mass indices, source regions, and so on. This can be used to refine prediction models and help us learn more about parts of the solar system nearest to us. All the high-level data products from the GMN project are publicly released under CC BY 4.0 and updated every six hours so researchers can have access to near-real-time information,” explains Jeremy Taylor (aka Tasmanskies) who has been “a driving force” behind the meteor camera builds.

Searching for a sky fall

Only nine meteorites have been discovered in New Zealand, and only the 1908 Mokoia meteorite in Tauranga was seen to fall. With the country having a land-mass larger than the UK, Dr Scott aims “to discover the next meteorite that comes into New Zealand through a citizen-led initiative.” The meteor cameras are put together by students from the rocketry club at the University of Otago and installed at locations around New Zealand, creating the densest southern hemisphere meteor-tracking network. The network is already capturing plenty of activity. “Raspberry Pi is essential for calculating the meteor trajectory each camera picks up and determining the ‘strewn’ field where debris should have landed,” says James.

UK Fireball Alliance’s James Rowe’s talk on meteor tracking showed how Raspberry Pi-powered cameras helped triangulate locations
UK Fireball Alliance’s James Rowe’s talk on meteor tracking showed how Raspberry Pi-powered cameras helped triangulate locations

“Raspberry Pi is awesome; small enough to sit around unobtrusively, but powerful enough to control a night-sky camera and manipulate the data that it collects, such as generating stacked images of the duration of the night,” enthuses James. “Raspberry Pi is very easy to program and operate. We easily link to the boards at the schools via a remote connection, which enables us to see the live stream, edit images, and access photos and videos. These are easily recompiled into time-lapses. It’s just brilliant.”

magpi meteor fireball

As a future development, Jeremy Taylor hopes it will be possible to install meteor cameras in Antarctica – with Raspberry Pi inside, of course.

The MagPi #121 out NOW!

You can grab the brand-new issue right now from Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, WHSmith, and other newsagents, including the Raspberry Pi Store in Cambridge. You can also get it via our app on Android or iOS. And there’s a free PDF you can download too.

magpi 121

You can also subscribe to the print version of The MagPi. Not only do we deliver it globally, but people who sign up to the twelve-month print subscription get a FREE Raspberry Pi Zero Pico W!

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