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Astronomers Solve Puzzle of Mysterious Streaks In Radio Images of the Sky

timothy posted about 5 months ago | from the smudges-on-the-lens dept.

Space 66

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes 'Back in 2012, astronomers constructed an array of 256 radio antennas in the high deserts of New Mexico designed to listen for radio waves produced by gamma ray bursts, one of the most energetic phenomena in universe and thought to be associated with the collapse of a rapidly rotating stars to form neutron stars and black holes. The array generates all sky images of signals produced in the 25 MHz to 75 MHz region of the spectrum. But when researchers switched it on, they began to observe puzzling streaks across the sky that couldn't possibly be generated by gamma ray bursts. One source left a trail covering more than 90 degrees of the sky in less than 10 seconds. This trail then slowly receded to an endpoint which glowed for around 90 seconds. Now the first study of these transient radio signals has discovered that they are almost certainly produced by fireballs as they burn up after entering the Earth's atmosphere. The conclusion comes after the researchers were able to match several of the radio images with visible light images of fireballs gathered by NASA's All Sky Fireball Network. That solves the mystery but not without introducing another to keep astrophysicists busy in future. The question they're scratching their heads over now is how the plasma trails left by meteors can emit radio waves at this frequency.'

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Meteor burst communications (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185131)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meteor_burst_communications

Re:Meteor burst communications (5, Informative)

teridon (139550) | about 5 months ago | (#47185719)

Yes, people use ionization trails to reflect their radio transmissions, but in TFA they discount this as the source of the emissions:

Meteor trails are known to reflect radio waves and indeed this has been one way of spotting them in the past.

But Obenberger and co reject this idea for a number of reasons. First, human radio transmissions are usually polarised and so any reflections ought to be polarised as well. The team found no evidence of this.

At the same time, human radio transmissions have easily identifiable spectra but the team found no evidence of this either in the data from the Long Wavelength Array.

"It is therefore our conclusion that ïreball trails radiate at low frequencies," they say.

Pffft (1, Offtopic)

Tablizer (95088) | about 5 months ago | (#47185139)

So there are no giant human-eating bird-dragons, it was just a moth on the lens.

That's odd (0)

cold fjord (826450) | about 5 months ago | (#47185153)

The question they're scratching their heads over now is how the plasma trails left by meteors can emit radio waves at this frequency.'

That's odd, I thought they had it all figured out. (shrug) I guess there is more to learn than most people figure.

Re:That's odd (1)

meerling (1487879) | about 5 months ago | (#47185181)

Solving one mystery reveals several more.

Re:That's odd (0)

TapeCutter (624760) | about 5 months ago | (#47185215)

I'm not sure what is mysterious, it gives of plenty of EM as light

Re:That's odd (1)

narcc (412956) | about 5 months ago | (#47185245)

I assume that the key bit here is "at this frequency".

Surely, there's a physicist around who can elaborate on that.

Re:That's odd (2)

Brett Buck (811747) | about 5 months ago | (#47185885)

Hmm, I am surprised that they don't know. I think there are plenty of other people who do. RF effect from meteorite trails is a well-known phenomenon from radio (people were using it to bounce messages in the 30s)

    Here are some people using it to track meteorites - very near the frequencies in question:

http://spaceweather.com/glossa... [spaceweather.com]

        The necessary condition for bouncing a particular frequency is that the path lengths of the plasma are the right length (say, half a wave length or maybe 2ish meters) which seems entirely plausible as a distance associated with the width of the plasma trail. It would not be at all surprising if a tiny amount bounced back and forth like a cavity resonator, OR, reflected ambient signals that the telescope wouldn't have otherwise detected.

So it doesn't seem that mysterious.

Re:That's odd (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47186121)

Except that they have reasons to thick it is not an echo, but being radiated by the trail itself. They explicitly discuss this. The ability of a plasma trail to radiate in the RF is not too surprising considering there are all sorts of frequencies and signals you can get from the vast zoo of waves in a magnetized plasma. Although figuring out exactly what type and source of waves you have in plasmas can be difficult, even on a table top plasma experiment where you have a lot more diagnostic access.

Re:That's odd (1)

osu-neko (2604) | about 5 months ago | (#47186757)

So it doesn't seem that mysterious.

Once again demonstrating the principle: the less you understand a problem, the more obvious the answer seems. (Related to the old programming adage: Confidence is the feeling you have before you understand the problem.) No actual problem has an obvious solution. If it did, it wouldn't be a problem to begin with. Whenever you feel something is obvious, it's a dead-giveaway that you're missing something important...

Re: That's odd (1)

codegen (103601) | about 5 months ago | (#47187617)

For every problem there is a solution that us simple, neat, and wrong -- H.L.Mencken

Re:That's odd (1)

RockDoctor (15477) | about 5 months ago | (#47197285)

TFA isn't talking about picking up echoes from the trails, but about actual emission from the trails, which is a different kettle of fish. Or even a different plasma of electrons, if you like your analogies mixed. As you say, people have been "bouncing" radio signals off meteor trails for decades. People have also been using omni-directional antennae hooked to fairly basic wide-band radio receivers as a too for detecting meteors in flight for a number of decades too. It's one of the easiest ways of getting a count of the actual rate of meteor arrival during a meteor shower, as it doesn't involve spending hours sitting out watching the sky, and the frailties to which the human observer is prone. Unsurprisingly, it correlates well with the ZHR records kept by experienced human observers, to the point that it's a valuable research tool.

So the fact that meteors produce Rf noise is hardly new ; being able to show that some of the RF meteor trails trails is fairly big news though. I still remember with a degree of awe the sight of the 100-odd degree long tail of Comet Hyakutake streaking across the sky in late 1996 (or was it 1997 and I'm getting confused with Hale-Bopp? Two good comets almost exactly a year apart. Was Slashdot even in existence then?)

I don't awe easily ; that was an incredible sight. To know that there are (broadly) similar events gracing the skies of our new, RF-seeing Overlords makes me feel happy for them and I extend my heartiest welcome to them.

Re:That's odd (1)

currently_awake (1248758) | about 5 months ago | (#47186467)

We know that plasma (hot ionized air) generates radio waves, that's how lightning can disrupt your radio reception. Yes it's mostly in the HF spectrum, but the lower VHF band is not immune to atmospheric noise.

Cyclotron Radiation? (2, Interesting)

bosef1 (208943) | about 5 months ago | (#47185155)

What about cyclotron radiation from the ions in the meteor plasma trails? Could charge carriers be orbiting in the plasma trail under the influence of the Earth's magnetic field, and radiating RF in the megahertz band?

Re:Cyclotron Radiation? (4, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185165)

What about cyclotron radiation from the ions in the meteor plasma trails? Could charge carriers be orbiting in the plasma trail under the influence of the Earth's magnetic field, and radiating RF in the megahertz band?

in a word: maybe

From the paper: "If a magnetic eld of 10 to 15 G were present within the trail, it follows that cyclotron radiation would be emitted at the observed frequencies by the electrons in the plasma. However, the surface geomagnetic eld is only 0.5 G, so this would require the generation of a strong magnetic eld by a reball, an eect that has never been observed."

Re:Cyclotron Radiation? (4, Funny)

the_other_chewey (1119125) | about 5 months ago | (#47185363)

From the paper: "If a magnetic eld of 10 to 15 G were present within the trail, it follows that cyclotron radiation would be emitted at the observed frequencies by the electrons in the plasma. However, the surface geomagnetic eld is only 0.5 G, so this would require the generation of a strong magnetic eld by a reball, an eect that has never been observed."

Hey, you! Your ligatures aren't showing!

Re:Cyclotron Radiation? (3, Interesting)

xfade551 (2627499) | about 5 months ago | (#47185459)

Let's see, meteor generates a plasma trail... that would be moving charged particles (both positive and negative). Moving charge means a changing electric field. A changing electric field causes a changing magnetic field, so we have a changing electro-magnetic field... i.e. radiowaves. The ions in the plasma trail don't stay that way, the electrons get recaptured at some point, which means a photon will be discharged, i.e. a radio wave-packet. As to frequency, just put a couple grad students to write a program to calculate photon emission frequencies of a couple million different ion configurations, and they'll probably find the correct correspondence somewhere in there.

Re:Cyclotron Radiation? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47186161)

that would be moving charged particles (both positive and negative)

Bulk movement of both the positive and negative charges doesn't create any net current, and hence no magnetic field. It can be difficult to just mechanically move them separately to get a net current from the ions and electrons being pulled differently because they will try to pull back together to maintain electric neutrality. You can get waves from the separation of the charges and them snapping back, but they tend to have much higher frequencies because of how strong that pull is.

The ions in the plasma trail don't stay that way, the electrons get recaptured at some point, which means a photon will be discharged, i.e. a radio wave-packet.

Atomic transitions and re-ionization tends to produce much, much higher frequency electromagnetic waves in the IR through x-rays. Radio based transitions typically depend on fine splittings of levels and require very low density, low collisionality because the transitions are very slow and rare. That is why some such transitions are not observed in the lab, but can be seen in radio astronomy, where you can have clouds of gas with collision frequencies of less than one in a thousand years for the atoms.

As to frequency, just put a couple grad students to write a program to calculate photon emission frequencies of a couple million different ion configurations,

It takes a lot more than just a grad student writing a program to work out the emission frequencies of transitions, and can take extensive work to get precision measurements of one atom's emissions or a major project to develop software that can model such things in a wide range of condition. But considering this is frequently needed in a wide range of plasma and astronomy experiments, such software exists, and databases of transition frequencies are easily searchable. But you will come back to the same problem that RF is not going to come from transitions in such a situation, and it comes down more to something like cyclotron motion of bulk electrons if there is enough magnetic field to get the frequencies observed, or a multitude of other waves experienced by magnetized plasmas.

Re:Cyclotron Radiation? (1)

budgenator (254554) | about 5 months ago | (#47188557)

Don't forget that the ion trail behind a meteor is also pretty turbulent so there would also be all kinds of doppler shifts, trying to calculate an emission freq is likely meaningless.

Re: Cyclotron Radiation? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185859)

And what specifically prevents the stone some cubic meters in volume, containing ferromagnetics and possibly experiencing some surface ionization, moving at speeds like few km/s in external field from generating magnetic field? Just asking.

Re: Cyclotron Radiation? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47186285)

A lot more is needed to create magnetic fields after the meteor has moved on, especially if it is going to last for 90 seconds. Plasma can be magnetized, but it is not trivial to just have it stay magnetized as the currents die off. It is quite possible though, just the situations leading to it are not as simple as "there was a magnetic rock here a minute ago."

Re: Cyclotron Radiation? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47186331)

You need a new ucking keyboard.

Re:Cyclotron Radiation? (2)

PPH (736903) | about 5 months ago | (#47186435)

Or the plasma trail forming a conductive channel through the atmosphere acting as a crude cavity resonator. The half wavelength of a 25 to 75 MHz signal should be 6 to 2 meters. So I'd start looking for structures in the meteor trail somewhere near these dimensions. A small (several cm) meteor's shock wave could conceivably ionize a column of air of this size.

Re:Cyclotron Radiation? (1)

calidoscope (312571) | about 5 months ago | (#47187151)

That sounds like a reasonable guess as to what is going on. The hot plasma is conductive and the Johnson noise may produce enough current to emit detectable radiation. My recollection was that the sky noise temp at 50 MHz was on the order of 3,000K, and the plasma from the meteor trail is likely to be considerably hotter than that.

Aliens (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185187)

Im not saying it was aliens, but it was..... aliens

Re:Aliens (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185807)

Cool, as long as they brought Fireball.

Is this not the same as grass noise? (4, Interesting)

zoid.com (311775) | about 5 months ago | (#47185189)

I've heard reports of people laying on the ground and "hearing" meteors. What baffled scientist about this was people were hearing them realtime and not delayed due to the speed of sound. They finally realized that it was radio waves emitted by the meteors causing the grass to vibrate and they were hearing the vibrations.

Maybe I dreamed it...

Re:Is this not the same as grass noise? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185213)

no, they reported smoking grass and then hearing meteor noises

Re:Is this not the same as grass noise? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185477)

no, they reported smoking grass and then hearing meteor noises

I always hear noises after smoking grass too! So that's why...

Re:Is this not the same as grass noise? (1)

Optali (809880) | about 5 months ago | (#47191217)

Not what I heard.

I heard reports from people smoking grass while listening to The Meteors [youtube.com]

Re:Is this not the same as grass noise? (4, Informative)

Peter H.S. (38077) | about 5 months ago | (#47185589)

I've heard reports of people laying on the ground and "hearing" meteors. What baffled scientist about this was people were hearing them realtime and not delayed due to the speed of sound. They finally realized that it was radio waves emitted by the meteors causing the grass to vibrate and they were hearing the vibrations.

Maybe I dreamed it...

I have heard meteors making real time sounds as they streaked across the sky. It was during the 2001 Leonids meteor storm. It was in a city with not a blade of grass in sight. This particular meteor storm was widely reported as emitting crackling and hissing sounds:
http://www.spaceweather.com/me... [spaceweather.com]

There has been some speculation about what could cause such sounds. Some have suggested that “electrophonic meteors” can cause secondary lower frequency vibrations to be heard simultaneously, but it is just a suggestion since good quality data is missing.

The RTFA discovery is just a part of a new series of discoveries that shows we know a lot less about meteors and comets than we thought we did.

Re:Is this not the same as grass noise? (1)

volmtech (769154) | about 5 months ago | (#47188163)

I remember hearing a sizzling sound from a few meteors. There was no delay in the sound as the meteor whizzed overhead. I remember thinking to myself, "Did I just hear a meteor?" I have also heard lightning "crackle" many seconds before the thunder boom.

Re:Is this not the same as grass noise? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47210353)

I have read about it somewhere a long time ago, and someone mentioned it could be conduction in, metal e.g. the frame of your glasses.

Re:Is this not the same as grass noise? (5, Informative)

Tapewolf (1639955) | about 5 months ago | (#47186337)

That was sufficiently weird that I had to look it up: http://www.livescience.com/386... [livescience.com]

Re:Is this not the same as grass noise? (1)

PPH (736903) | about 5 months ago | (#47186407)

Something like very low frequency sound (pressure) waves which are beyond human hearing causing the grass to move, creating rustling noises.

The Chelyabinsk meteor created intense enough pressure waves (actually supersonic shock waves) to blow out windows, so I guess rustlng some grass isn't out of the question.

Re: Is this not the same as grass noise? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47186755)

No they brought tolhe anal probe for you

Re:Is this not the same as grass noise? (1)

vandamme (1893204) | about 5 months ago | (#47192761)

I've heard a meteor too. however, I was in a middle of a lake on a boat, and there was no grass shaking out there.

Aliens (-1, Offtopic)

ameline (771895) | about 5 months ago | (#47185221)

UFOs sending out distress calls.

(I'll just adjust my tinfoil hat now)

Astonomy is a joke (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185253)

Astronomers claim that they can determine that a planet 4000 miles away is made of, its core temperature, if it has an atmosphere and if it has a moon but yet they can't even determine or know about things that happen 10-40 miles from the earth. The stack tolerance errors or Six Sigma or what ever term you want to use applies here as well. We will never know in our lifetime but I'd bet just about all predictions, discoveries, and theories that are published about things outside of our solar system would turn out to be totally wrong.

Astonomy is a joke (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185259)

I meant to say 4000+ light years.

a planet 4000 miles away (1)

rossdee (243626) | about 5 months ago | (#47185481)

"I meant to say 4000+ light years"

Whew I was a bit worried there. If there was another planet within 4000 miles of the earth the tidal effects would wipe us out.

Re:a planet 4000 miles away (1)

lgw (121541) | about 5 months ago | (#47185527)

Well, there's definitely a planet 4000 miles from me. It's not another planet, but that's really OK by me.

Re:Astonomy is a joke (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47186349)

Just like when the vernier calipers or micrometer was invented, we discovered that our distances between two nearby towns was off by orders of magnitudes and that some towns just didn't exist? Or maybe different techniques have different relative errors that are independent of other techniques and can result in some close measurements being more difficult than some far away ones.

Re:Astonomy is a joke (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47192821)

That clears everything up, thanks.

Reflected EM Waves? (2, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185299)

Chances are, the detected frequencies may be due to reflection of radio energy that's been transmitted by transmitters around the world. Radio amateurs have been using meteor-scatter as a way of reflecting radio frequency energy for short periods to make intercontinental contact - so this may be a contributor to the signals detected at "radio quiet" locations.

Re:Reflected EM Waves? (1)

brainboyz (114458) | about 5 months ago | (#47185313)

Not many people transmitting x and gamma rays.

Re:Reflected EM Waves? (2)

dogsbreath (730413) | about 5 months ago | (#47185403)

RTFA 25 to 75 mhz is a span that includes many Earth originated communication sources including radio amateurs, RC toys, CB, PTP business, and broadcast.

Re:Reflected EM Waves? (2)

Charliemopps (1157495) | about 5 months ago | (#47185691)

Chances are, the detected frequencies may be due to reflection of radio energy that's been transmitted by transmitters around the world. Radio amateurs have been using meteor-scatter as a way of reflecting radio frequency energy for short periods to make intercontinental contact - so this may be a contributor to the signals detected at "radio quiet" locations.

They specifically rule that out if you read the article.

Re:Reflected EM Waves? (2)

Dan East (318230) | about 5 months ago | (#47187023)

One word: polarization. Man made radio waves for communication are almost always polarized. Further, reflected radio waves are often very polarized even if the source was not (which is why polarized sunglasses reduce glare). They did not see the polarization expected from reflected radio signals. It appears they are actually emitted.

Fission is happening? (1)

TheRealHocusLocus (2319802) | about 5 months ago | (#47185433)

Some type of triggered fission in the heavy elements of the meteorite [terrapub.co.jp] ? And gamma emitter with a short half life of minutes is being created and left in the trail, such as Barium-137 [periodictable.com] ?

Don't worry... (2)

cirby (2599) | about 5 months ago | (#47185551)

...it's just the screams of alien robots burning up in the atmosphere.

"Prepare to die, humans! Hey, this is sorta hot, isn't it? No, really, I should have thought this through. AAAHHHHHH!"

Fail (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185605)

Are these "uneducated/unprofessional" people having set this up?
Prodigies in their field who never learned that other people figured this out in the 19030's?

Re: Fail (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185629)

The 19030s? Are you from the future here to make fun of us?

Re: Fail (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47186017)

Don't be silly that'd be impossible. They're from 19030 BC. After Atlantis fell so much knowledge was lost... ;)

Obviously they are alien space probes... (1)

LF11 (18760) | about 5 months ago | (#47185679)

..burning up in the upper atmosphere, like ours will someday on far-off planets, long after we are gone.

Re:Obviously they are alien space probes... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185793)

or God works in mysterious ways, that answer was good enoughfor most Americans.

Re:Obviously they are alien space probes... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185833)

and the chance of an earth-originating space probe hitting a 'far off' (exo-) planet not aimed at (for a mission) is what, exactly?

Re:Obviously they are alien space probes... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47186025)

Depending on your view of the universe it could be the chance between it hitting a planet and something else. Forever is a long time.

256 (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185765)

Gotta love these nerds.

Nerd #1: "Wohoo, got funding to make an array of 250 radio antennas".

Nerd #2: "Well, we have these 8 bits to address each antanna, so let's make that 256. I'll blow my pointy haired boss for the remaining six."

All: "He's taking one for the team."

Re:256 (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47187319)

or maybe they wanted a 16x16 grid.

But in actuality they have 256 antennas per station, for a total of ~13000 antennas.

So, nice fantasy. If you're so concerned with the idea of dick-sucking, well, I hope it happens for you sometime.

More likely resulting from various gases (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185779)

More likely resulting from the various gases in the atmosphere dropping to the ground state. Even after the glow there will still be some ionized gases in the upper atmosphere that continue to radiate as they release the energy.

The problem is the short duration. If they hung around for hours it would be much easier to analyze and identify what is releasing the radiation.

Re:More likely resulting from various gases (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47186187)

And exactly what of "various gases" has a 25-75 MHz transition to the ground state? Even the hydrogen hyperfine splitting is 1.4 GHz, and that is not observable in something as dense as the upper atmosphere.

Maybe they have been seeing what they want to see (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47185855)

And what they think have been gamma ray bursts in the far reaches of the galaxy are merely the inflated values of things seen.

Silicon ions (2)

laughingskeptic (1004414) | about 5 months ago | (#47186657)

They reject most of my theories in their paper, but the don't mention silicon ions as a possible source so I'm going with that. With higher masses and higher charges the silicon ion part of the plasma will be denser and be more affected by the earth's magnetic field at that altitude.

25-75 MHz (1)

manu0601 (2221348) | about 5 months ago | (#47188465)

There is something wrong with the summary: 25 to 75 MHz is not within the gamma ray spectrum.

Re:25-75 MHz (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#47188521)

Gamma ray bursts don't exclusively produce gamma rays, instead producing observed light across the entire electromagnetic spectrum.
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