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The Ghost of Fireballs Past

Eerie-sounding echoes from Leonid and Geminid meteors were captured by amateurs monitoring the Navy's Space Surveillance Radar

The geometry of meteor
bounce radio observing.December 21, 1998: A little more than a month ago the Leonid meteors put on a dazzling show of shooting stars and fireballs for sky-watchers around the world. While most meteor enthusiasts were outside watching the show, a few stayed inside and tuned into the shower on their radios. What they heard may surprise you.

Meteoroids like the Leonids travel at tremendous velocities. When they strike Earth's atmosphere at speeds of 100,000 mph or more they ionize the air in their path. These luminous ionized trails, like the one pictured below, are visually striking. But that's not all -- they also reflect radio waves. During a shower like the Leonids, radio signals from TV stations, RADAR facilities, and AM/FM transmitters are constantly bouncing off meteor trails. The echoes can be heard around the world.

A Leonid meteor
streaks above Cape Canaveral on November 17th, 1998.Left: This photo of a Leonid was captured by Steve Dunn (copyright 1998, all rights reserved) near Cape Canaveral, Florida around 0600 EST on Nov. 17, 1998. The colorful tail consists of ionized air that can reflect radio waves from TV, radar, and AM/FM radio transmitters.

One of the most powerful transmitters on Earth is the Navy Space Surveillance Radar (NAVSPASUR for short). Located in Kickapoo, TX, NAVSPASUR transmits 800 kW of continuous-wave (CW) radio power into an east-west oriented fan beam at 216.98 MHz. The radar's primary mission is to track satellites and space debris for the US Space Command. It can detect objects as small as 10 cm orbiting 15,000 km above the earth's surface. Although meteoroids measuring a mm or less in size are generally too small to be detected, their ion trails produce strong echoes that can be heard on simple ham radio equipment.

Leonid meteor radar echoesAmateur radio enthusiast Dr. Steven Bienvenu monitored NAVSPASUR during the November Leonid meteor shower and also during this month's Geminid shower. He recorded strong meteor echoes on both occasions. The graphic pictured left is a 25-second snippet of his receiver's audio output during the Leonid meteor shower. The strongest echoes are reflections from Leonid meteor trails; the weaker and briefer "blips" are satellite echoes.

The WAV-format audio files linked below contain recordings of NAVSPASUR radar echoes from Leonid and Geminid meteors, and from the space shuttle Endeavour during the recent ISS assembly mission. Each file was extracted from an audio recording provided by Dr. Steven Bienvenu, M.D.

Leonid meteor echo: This 25s audio file begins with 3 brief satellite echoes in rapid succession followed by a 15+ second Leonid meteor radar reflection. The data were obtained on November 17, 1998 during the Leonid meteor shower.
208 kB WAV

Geminid meteor echo: This 10s audio file includes a radar echo from a Geminid meteor lasting approximately 3 seconds. The recording was made during the Geminid meteor shower on December 14, 1998.
218 kB WAV

STS-88 radar echo: This 5s audio file contains a radar echo from space shuttle Endeavour obtained 14 Dec 1998 during the first ISS assembly mission. The reflection from Endeavour lasts approximately 1.5 sec. 108 kB WAV

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Satellites move through the NAVSPASUR beam rapidly, usually in less than a second. As a result they sound like the "blips" and "pings" that are stereotypical of radars and sonars. (In the three audio recordings above, only the Leonids WAV file contains echoes of fast-moving satellites.)

Meteor trails are longer-lasting. They usually persist for a few seconds, but in extreme cases they can last for 10 or more minutes. They sound less like blips, and more like long-winded warbling whistles. Meteors, satellites, and spacecraft have even more distinctive signatures in the dynamic spectra of NAVSPASUR radar returns. A full discussion of radar spectra is beyond the scope of this article. More information, plus colorful echo spectra of meteors and the space shuttle Endeavour may be found here. Reports from Dr. Bienvenu and other amateur radio operators indicate that the November 1998 Leonids were far better radio meteors than December's Geminids. The Leonids were more numerous and their reflective tails lasted longer. One amateur radio operator reportedly exchanged calls with 14 other hams during a 9-minute long Leonid "burn." In contrast, the 1998 Geminids featured very few "long burners."

Most meteor echo enthusiasts listen for reflections of distant radio transmitters at frequencies between 40 MHz and 100 MHz. These are the best bands for such work because weakly ionized meteor trails reflect signals most efficiently at lower frequencies, below 100 MHz. Although 216 MHz would be considered by most to be a poor frequency for meteor observations, because it is too high for efficient reflections, the tremendous power of the Naval Space Surveillance radar transmitter more than compensates for its less-than-optimum observing frequency.

Amateurs in much of North America and in the Caribbean should be able to detect NAVSPASUR echoes from bright meteors and the larger space satellites using relatively modest ham radio equipment. For example, Dr. Bienvenu's NAVSPASUR observing setup was relatively simple. He used a ICOM R7000 radio receiver in USB mode tuned to 216.980 MHz, with a slight frequency offset to center the NAVSPASUR signal in the narrow 2.5 kHz receiver band pass. The antenna was a common TV/FM Yagi-style aerial. During the Leonid and Geminid meteor showers he pointed the antenna toward azimuth 275 degrees, the direction of the NAVSPASUR transmitter as seen from his location in Louisiana. Meteor trails are formed just 80 km above Earth's surface, so he pointed the Yagi just 8 degrees above the horizon.

He recorded the audio output of his receiver at a rate of 11,000 samples per second using the sound card in his 120 MHz Pentium PC.

This approach to meteor observing could prove fruitful for showers that are difficult to observe visually, including daytime meteor showers, and showers that take place during the full moon. The upcoming Quadrantid meteor shower is a perfect example. As many as 120 meteors per hour are expected during the shower's peak on January 3, 1999, but the full moon will make observations of all but the brighter fireballs difficult. It may be a good year to forgo the cold outdoors and listen to the Quadrantids on the radio instead. Web Links

Meteors for kids - from the NASA Liftoff Space Academy

NASA Liftoff meteor shower pages - learn the basics about meteor showers. Includes tutorials, Java animations, and educational activities.

NASA Liftoff orbital velocity calculator - enter the altitude of a satellite or spacecraft and find out its velocity and orbital period using this handy JavaScript calculator.

External Links:

Navy Space Surveillance Radar -- basic facts about NAVSPASUR

Navy Space Surveillance Radar -- history and technical specifications

Richard Horne's Spectrogram 4.2.10 Home page -- Free software to produce dynamic spectra from audio signals. Used to create the meteor spectra in this article.

The Leonids -- from Gary Kronk Meteors and Comets web site

The Geminids -- from Gary Kronk Meteors and Comets web site

December's generous Geminids -- Sky &Telescope article

Meteor scattering tutorial -- from the International Meteor Organization

International Meteor Organization -- home page

Related Stories:

15 Dec. 1998: Bunches & Bunches of Geminids -- Video of the 1998 Geminid meteors.

27 Nov. 1998: The 1998 Leonids: A bust or a blast? -- New images of Leonid fireballs and their smoky remnants.

23 Nov. 1998: Leonids Sample Return payload recovered! -- Scientists are scanning the "comet catcher" for signs of Leonid meteoroids.

19 Nov. 1998: Early birds catch the Leonids -- The peak of the Leonid meteor shower happened more than 14 hours earlier than experts had predicted.

18 Nov. 1998:
A high-altitude look at the Leonids -- NASA science balloon catches video of 8 fireballs.

16 Nov. 1998: The Leonid Sample Return Mission -- NASA scientists hope to capture a Leonid meteoroid and return it to Earth.

16 Nov. 1998: NASA Spacecraft take cover from the Leonids -- but the Hubble Space Telescope won't stop observing.

10 Nov. 1998: Great Expectations: the 1998 Leonid meteor shower -- the basics of what the Leonids are and what might happen on November 17.

Dynamic Spectra of Meteor Radar Echoes
(or, How to distinguish meteor and satellite echoes in one easy lesson)


One way to distinguish between satellite and meteor echoes is by simply listening. Satellites sound like "blips" or "pings". Meteors are longer-lasting warbling whistles.

A more clear-cut approach is to plot the power spectrum of the radar echo as a function of time. In a "dynamic spectrum" the signature of a meteor is clearly different from that of a satellite or spacecraft.

Satellites race through the NAVSPASUR radar beam at velocities between 1 and 10 km/s, depending on the details of their orbit. Not only is the reflection brief, it is also Doppler shifted as the orientation of the satellite's velocity vector changes with respect to the radar transmitter. In a dynamic spectrum a satellite reflection appears as a slanted, nearly vertical line (see below).

Dynamic spectrum showing Leonid meteor and satellite radar echoes
Dynamic spectrum of a 
Leonid radar return, including two satellite echoes.
This dynamic spectrum spans the first 11 seconds of the Leonid meteor echo WAV file discussed in the body of this article. Power is displayed in false color. Blue is low power; red is high.



Meteoroids move at much higher velocities than low Earth orbit satellites, so the Doppler shift from a meteoroid echo would be even greater than that of a satellite. However, it is not the fast-moving meteoroid that causes the radar echo. The radio signal bounces off the ionized air left behind when the meteoroid disintegrates in the atmosphere. The velocity of the ionized trail is low, typically no more than 0.02 km/s, compared to 30 - 70 km/s for the meteoroid. As a result there is no observable Doppler shift in the meteor echo. The meteor echo appears in the dynamic spectrum as a nearly horizontal line exhibiting no drift in frequency.

Dynamic spectrum of a radar echo from STS-88
radar echo from shuttle Endeavour
during the first ISS assembly mission

On December 14, 1998 near the peak of the Geminid meteor shower, Dr. Steven Bienvenu obtained an audio recording of NAVSPASUR echoes from the space shuttle Endeavour. The echo describes a slanted line in the frequency-time domain that is characteristic of the doppler shifted echoes from satellites and spacecraft, but not from meteor trails. Power is displayed in false color. Blue is low power; red is high.


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Author: Dr. Tony Phillips
Curator: Linda Porter
NASA Official: Gregory S. Wilson