Cameras on meteor hunt

At the installation of the CAMS box in Fairton is West Melton amateur astronomer Ian Crumpton, Campbell Duncan, Keanu Duncan, Ashburton Astronomy Group member Alistair Perkins and Dr Peter Jenniskens. (Photo: Lambell Studios)

By Mick Jensen

A box of cameras on a garage roof in Fairton will film and help provide information for meteor research used by NASA.

Some 16 video surveillance-type cameras linked with a nearby computer will record meteor shower activity in the skies above Canterbury.

The Fairton site will form a triangular link with similar data recording stations at Geraldine and West Melton and provide more reliable footage.

The home of Fairton’s Duncan family was chosen for the third CAMS (Cameras for Allsky Meteor) set up because of its central location between two existing stations and because of the family’s interest in astronomy through the Ashburton Astronomy Group.

On hand last week to set up the box of cameras in Fairton was renowned meteor astronomer Dr Peter Jenniskens.

Dutch born and educated, Jenniskens is an expert on meteor showers and a senior research scientist at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute and at NASA Ames Research Center.

Dr Jenniskens said it was exciting to set up the triangular link, which would help cut down on distance loss and provide more reliable footage of southern hemisphere skies.

West Melton often had fog and Geraldine had the nearby hills, so cameras at Fairton gave a better chance of doubling the current 60 meteor showers recorded each night.

Good footage needed clear skies, but also at least two stations to capture activity.

He said Canterbury cameras were part of an international network that included stations in the Benelux countries, USA and UAE.

“The northern hemisphere is well covered, but there is still a lot of work to be done in the southern hemisphere skies. We hope to have cameras set up in South Africa very soon as well.”

Dr Jenniskens said meteor showers were fantastic to see.

In the past, stars were manually charted, but that practice had been replaced by cameras.

The 16 surveillance cameras at Fairton were able to detect faint activity in the skies and specially built software analysed footage and provided information and measurements on the direction of shooting stars and how they entered into the earth’s atmosphere, he said.

Current and historic results from Canterbury cameras and others around the world can be viewed at the NASA meteor shower portal

The celestial sphere shows stars in black and meteors in colours, red for fast showers, blue for slow showers, and non-showers in white.

Each dot, or radiant, represents the direction from which a meteor approaches.

“It’s great to be able to look at data on specific dates, like birthdays.

“There are 10 famous meteor showers, including Eta Aquarids, Perseids, Orionids and Leonids, and to be able to table data on those and new showers and to understand what’s happening in the big sky above, is very exciting.”

New Zealand meteor shower tracking began in 2014 and the work is supported by Professor Jack Baggaley from the School of Physical and Chemical Sciences at University of Canterbury.

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