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New meteor showers discovered: as Earth circles the Sun, it crosses a rich and changing tangle of meteoroid streams. Automated cameras are mapping them better than ever.

FOR THE FIRST TIME in nearly two centuries of surveying the night sky, astronomers are charting meteor showers in a massive and objective way--by automated surveillance video. Generations of naked-eye observers have discovered and monitored meteor showers by visual counting and hand-plotting. Photography and radar have helped, but all these methods have their limits. Now we're using networks of low-light video cameras and sophisticated data processing to map meteoroid streams much better than ever before. We're finding dozens of new minor showers and some surprising not-so-minor ones. Amateurs are participating, and we're seeking more help in this ongoing effort.

Until now, astronomers have agreed on only a short list of 64 "established" meteor showers. At the August International Astronomical Union's General Assembly in Beijing, which will take place about two months after this issue goes to press, we expect to expand this official list greatly.

These developments are quite recent. Our Cameras for Allsky Meteor Surveillance (CAMS) project, first came online in October 2010. In just over a year it has identified new showers and confirmed many previously questionable ones that we hope will be approved in Beijing.

Tiny Bits Betray Big Parents

Each meteor shower is important, no matter how minor it appears. A shower happens when Earth, in its annual orbit around the Sun, passes through a sparse stream of sesame-seed to pebble-sized dust clods and bits of rock that have been shed by a mountain-sized comet or occasionally by an asteroid. This parent body follows an orbit similar to its debris stream, which means that even a minor shower can betray the presence of a comet that might someday hit Earth. Meteor showers indicate these potentially hazardous objects even if the parent has yet to be discovered. Showers also provide clues to what these objects are made of and how they have behaved in the recent past, how they shed particles when warmed by the Sun and, in many cases, at what times they have undergone massive disruptions.

If we can identify the source body, we can calculate the shape and size of the stream in space by determining how the parent was moving when each wave of shedding occurred, and how each swarm from these episodes has been gravitationally perturbed since. The current searches for near-Earth objects have been identifying the parent bodies of numerous showers for the first time.

Over many millennia, a meteoroid stream gradually spreads out and falls apart, creating the great background of random sporadic meteoroids that impact spacecraft unpredictably and give rise to the solar system's vast zodiacal dust cloud.

Mapping the Meteor Year

To my surprise, the first week of December has turned out to be the most interesting for meteor observations. The new CAMS data show that at least 14 significant showers are active that week, each with its own particular radiant direction on the sky, velocity, duration (indicating stream width), and behavior. Five of these showers were completely new to me, even after spending many nights over the years on my back in a reclining lawn chair, pen and paper in hand, watching the sky intently.

That's how meteor showers used to be discovered. Since about the 1860s, visual observers have mapped them by drawing meteor paths on a star chart and then looking for a divergence point: the shower's radiant, its perspective point of origin on the sky. The radiant is where we would see a shower's meteoroids coming from if we could see them in the far distance, instead of just in their final second or two when they dive into the atmosphere. The particles in a stream move essentially in parallel--so like railroad tracks in a photograph, they appear to diverge from a distant perspective point.

Starting in the 1930s, astronomers have also identified showers not just by meteors' two-dimensional paths on the sky, but by their actual three-dimensional paths through Earth's atmosphere as triangulated from sky cameras positioned some 25 to 60 miles (40 to 100 km) apart. Working backward from this path through the atmosphere, we can determine a meteoroid's prior orbit through the solar system. But photographic film and plates were relatively insensitive, and such efforts produced few orbits. A great many showers were reported based on suggestive, but statistically weak, similarities among a mere two or three such calculated orbits.

The list of showers grew even longer in the 1940s, when radar was first used to count meteors and measure rough trajectories in the atmosphere. This was how astronomers mapped daytime showers. By that time, however, meteor astronomers had often given up on checking their results against those of other researchers, and soon many showers were known by multiple names. Only in 2006 did the International Astronomical Union resolve this confusion by adopting nomenclature rules and establishing a Task Group on Meteor Shower Nomenclature, which I chair.

We name officially accepted showers for the constellation containing the shower's radiant, or the bright star nearest to it. The Latin possessive ending of the star name is replaced by "-id." For example, when Earth passes through Comet Halley's meteoroids in early May, we see them radiating from near the star Eta Aquarii, so they are called the Eta Aquariids (pronounced Aquariids). In case of confusion, the task group can propose a preference. Names are only official once a stream is convincingly established as real.

The Meteor Data Center in Poznan', Poland, maintains a Working List of Meteor Showers, which helps us keep track of known and suspected showers mentioned in recent literature. New shower discoveries need to be first verified against that list and are then assigned a unique name and three-letter code.

This working list was 385 showers long as of June. At the IAU General Assembly in Rio de Janeiro in 2009, 64 of them received official names and the designation "established." But that still left more than 300 showers awaiting confirmation.

The CAMS Project

CAMS grew out of my frustration in trying to construct a list of known meteor showers for my 2006 book Meteor Showers and their Parent Comets. Based on the literature, it was impossible to tell which ones were real beyond a handful of main showers.

Since mid-2008, NASA's planetary-astronomy program has supported the CAMS project to confirm the unconfirmed showers. It took several years to develop the necessary technologies to deal with data from 60 video cameras divided over three stations. First light was in October 2010, and all stations were working by May 2011.

We analyze the data at the SETI Institute, my home institution near NASA's Ames Research Center. A team of 10 amateur astronomers support the data analysis and operate our video stations, located around the San Francisco Bay area. The first station is at the Fremont Peak Observatory south of Gilroy, California, and is run by amateurs of the Fremont Peak Observatory Association (FPOA). A second station is at a private home in Sunnyvale, currently with Jim Albers. The third is at Lick Observatory, operated by staff astronomer Bryant Grigsby.

How do we do it? Each station has 20 Watec Wat-902H2 Ultimate video security cameras aimed around the sky. These can see stars as faint as magnitude 5.4 when equipped with 12-mm objective lenses. Each camera watches a 20[degrees]-by-30[degrees] area, allowing 20 cameras to cover the entire sky above 30[degrees] elevation.

The heart of the project is the software needed to detect meteors in video recordings, triangulate on them from different stations, and calculate their 3-D trajectories in the atmosphere and prior orbits in space. The main architect of this software is amateur astronomer and professional detection-algorithm specialist Pete Gural of Sterling, Virginia.

If you'd like to chip in and help, we have also developed the tools that enable you to run your own single-camera CAMS station. This effort is coordinated by FPOA member Dave Samuels. See the box on page 25 for more details.

Each camera generates about 10 gigabytes of video per clear night. Software examines the footage for meteors, and it saves only 8-second snippets that contain moving objects. That still means that each camera collects about 200 megabytes of data per night.

I collect the 60 cameras' video records for processing at the SETI Institute. One software tool maps each camera's field of view based on the star background. Another extracts meteor trajectories and speeds. Software then looks for coincidences: the same meteor filmed from at least two stations. I check the quality of each coincidence to exclude birds, bats, clouds, planes, and other false matches that the software has not already filtered out. The final product is a reliable table with all trajectory and orbit information, plus light curves.

Most other all-sky meteor networks focus on catching fireballs that might drop meteorites on the ground. These record only a few meteors per night from which we can extract good orbits. Our goal for CAMS was to scale up the harvest.

Most of the meteors we detect are magnitude +1 to +3, the same that visual observers generally see. When all the cameras operate as expected, we determine 100 to 300 meteoroid orbits on a clear night. We now have collected more than 47,000 orbits.

CAMS is producing as many orbits each clear night as the original three-year tally published from a similar effort by the Japanese SonotaCo consortium, led by Touru Kanamori of Tokyo. That ongoing project started in 2007 and is expected to produce many more orbits in the future. The SonotaCo network consists of 25 amateur astronomers who operate up to 100 cameras with about a 90[degrees] field of view, recording slightly brighter meteors. Because of our smaller field of view and higher spatial resolution, CAMS measures orbits about twice as accurately.

"Established" Showers

Together, SonotaCo and CAMS are giving us a better picture than ever of which meteor showers are active around the year, and how showers change from year to year.

To display the 64 showers officially established so far, I made 15 maps for spans of several days using combined SonotaCo and CAMS data. Some of these maps are shown in this article; all can be seen at Each colored dot is the calculated radiant of a single meteor. Color indicates the meteor's arrival speed, from violet for the slowest to red for the fastest. A group of same-colored dots indicates a shower, often with its three-letter designation. The maps also identify some previously unconfirmed showers seen clearly in the CAMS data; we expect that these will soon receive the label "established."

CAMS also picked up many previously unknown showers, and some were detected well enough to deserve "established" status right away. For example, six meteors with one ultra-compact radiant appeared within a few hours on February 4, 2011. This radiant was not there in earlier years. Now called the February Eta Draconids, this shower was caused by Earth briefly being hosed by the first-revolution debris trail of a previously unknown long-period comet. Because the bits were released only at the comet's last return, the radiant swarm is very concentrated. The stream is the first evidence of this comet's existence, and the fact that we were briefly showered by its first-revolution debris tail implies that the comet could potentially hit Earth.

Also, while reducing CAMS data for this article, I discovered a shower of very slow meteors (16.7 kilometers per second, or 37,400 mph) radiating from Cassiopeia in early December and originating from a Jupiter-family comet. From what I can tell, nobody has ever heard of it. It has been designated the December Phi Cassiopeiids (code DPC).

Even with more than 100,000 orbits now measured by CAMS and SonotaCo combined, the sky is still sparsely sampled. CAMS maps of single nights are clumpy, suggesting that unrecognized showers lurk just below the threshold and are awaiting better data. In the next two years we hope that CAMS will bring these showers into focus.

And we hope that readers will set up single-CAMS stations to create a wider surveillance network, and to help ensure that video surveillance of the night sky will continue. With some of the more interesting showers showing up only once in a while, the future will surely be rich with surprises.

Each colored dot on these maps is the calculated radiant of a single meteor. Violet, blue, and green mark slow (11 to 45 km per second, or 25,000 to 100,000 mph) meteors that are catching up to Earth. Most of these come from Jupiter-family comets. Yellow, orange, and red dots mark fast (up to 72 km per second, or 160,000 mph) meteors that approach Earth head-on. They mostly come from Oort Cloud comets. A group of dots in the same map sharing the same color represents a specific meteor shower. Many of these are labeled with the official 3-letter IAU designation. The dashed line is the ecliptic plane. See more maps at ALL MAPS S&T: GREGG DINDERMAN / SOURCE: PETER JENNISKENS

August 30 - September 12

The tight radiant clustering of the Aurigids (AUR), a shower observed by the SonotaCo project only in 2007, indicates a young shower. Our modeling shows that the 2007 outburst represents debris shed one revolution ago by the long-period comet C/1911 N1 (Kiess). The September Epsilon Perseids (SPE) and the Nu Eridanids (NUE) originate from unknown Oort Cloud comets. In total, this map includes 1,774 meteors from SonotaCo and 1,866 from CAMS.

October 18 - 29

For visual observers, the familiar Orionids (ORI), which are particles shed by Comet Halley, mask the faster Epsilon Geminids (EGE), which had been suspected from sparse photographic data but are now confirmed. The Leonis Minorids (LMI) originate from Comet C/1739 K1 (Zanotti). At this time of year, the Southern Taurids (STA) are more active than the Northern Taurids (NTA). These data are based on 7,604 meteors from SonotaCo and 1,629 from CAMS.

November 1 - 10

Showers in early November include late Orionids, early fast Leonids (LEO), the Northern and Southern Taurids in about equal numbers, the newly discovered Kappa Ursae Majorids (KUM), Omicron Eridanids (OER), and the slow Andromedids (AND). Morning-sky radiants produce faster meteors than those in the evening sky because they collide with Earth head-on. Evening-sky meteors come from the other direction. There are 2,474 meteors from SonotaCo and 2,140 from CAMS.

December 1 - 8

The first week of December sports 14 distinct showers at present count. The once-unknown Sigma Hydrids (HYD) swell to become a major shower on December 6th. Their parent body remains undiscovered. The November Orionids (NOO) run from mid-November through mid-December. Some early Geminids (GEM) are already showing up. Leonids are seen continuing

well past their November 17th peak. There are 4,250 meteors from SonotaCo and 3,240 from CAMS.

December 18 - 25

The Ursids (URS), originating just off the bowl of the Little Dipper, come from the Halley-type Comet 8P/Tuttle. The December Comae Berenicids (COM) peak this week, but the shower is active all December and January. Radar observations had earlier found the daytime Omega Serpentids and Sigma Serpentids (OSE and SSE); the CAMS project confirmed them with a few meteors seen coming from these radiants before dawn. There are 2,792 meteors from both SonotaCo and CAMS.

January 1 - 7

In the year's first week, the brief but rich Quadrantid (QUA) shower sends medium-speed meteors radiating from near the Big Dipper. These originate from the asteroid-like object 2003 EH1, a dormant Jupiter-family short-period comet that suff ered a breakup about 500 years ago. Other identified showers are the Comae Berenicids, the January Leonids (JLE), and the Alpha Hydrids (AHY). Note the hints of additional clumps. There are 2,831 meteors from SonotaCo and 381 from CAMS.

RELATED ARTICLE: Join Us! How to Set up a Single-CAMS Station.

My colleagues and I urge amateurs to participate in the CAMS project. You can set up a camera at your own location to help determine meteoroid orbits with the same precision as the main part of CAMS, using the same tools.

First, find at least one friend 25 to 60 miles away who will join the project. A single CAMS camera can detect about 50 meteors per clear night. Two cameras spaced appropriately can allow us to measure about 10 to 20 accurate orbits per night.

Each station needs a Watec Wat-902H2 Ultimate camera, a 12-mm f/1.2 lens for it, an EasyCap frame grabber, a video cable, access to power, and a PC. The cameras should be aimed at the same volume of the atmosphere about 50 or 60 miles up. They can be mounted outside in a standard weatherproof security-camera housing (recommended), or indoors behind a window in a dark room. The computer needs to be dedicated to the project during capture hours. The combined cost of the camera, lens, frame grabber, and cable is less than $600.

It takes about an evening's work to set up the system. Some experience with running Windows console programs and scripts is helpful. After that the system can work almost by itself, with scripts running the various software tools at the appropriate times.

After everything is set up and calibrated, the camera will automatically begin recording each night. A fast multi-core computer can process the video as it comes in and finish a few minutes after recording stops at dawn. Slower computers will need to run the software later, which can take 3 to 8 hours. Finishing and uploading the results takes less than a half hour per week of clear nights. The average data upload you need to send us is just 2 to 6 megabytes per clear night.

See for more.

SHOPPING LIST The main items you'll need to buy to join the CAMS project are a Watec Wat-902H2 Ultimate low-light security camera (a standard weatherproof housing is also recommended), a 12-mm f/1.2 fixed-focus lens for it, and the EasyCap frame grabber for your computer's operating system.

Peter Jenniskens is a meteor researcher with the SETI Institute and NASA/Ames Research Center. He chairs the IAU Task Group on Meteor Shower Nomenclature and is author of "the" book on the topic, Meteor Showers and their Parent Comets.
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Author:Jenniskens, Peter
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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