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Uploaded:2016-04-26
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Learn about how one Japanese startup wants to offer meteor showers on demand, and how this will affect our scientific study of the mesosphere.

Host: Reid Reimers

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Sources:
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0094576516000060
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/science/atmosphere-layers2.html
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/sunearth/science/mos-upper-atmosphere.html
http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2015-06/26/artificial-shooting-stars
http://www.space.com/29849-on-demand-meteror-showers-ale.html
http://phys.org/news/2015-06-star-japan-man-made-meteors.html
http://www.cnet.com/news/man-made-meteor-showers-ale-star-tokyo-2020-olympic-games-tomorrow-daily-228/
http://scied.ucar.edu/shortcontent/mesosphere-overview
http://www.aeronomie.be/en/topics/earthsystem/meso2.en.pdf
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/1999GL003618/pdf
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364682613001727
http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=18835
http://www.britastro.org/radio/projects/Detection_of_meteors_by_RADAR.pdf
http://leonid.arc.nasa.gov/meteor.html

[Intro Plays]

Reid: Meteor showers are undeniably beautiful. But they’re also unpredictable -- you could stand outside all evening waiting for one and not see anything. So, wouldn’t it be cool if you could be absolutely sure you were gonna see one? Well, a Japanese start-up wants to offer meteor showers on demand -- just like a fireworks show. All they need to pull it off is a tiny satellite, a secret chemical mixture, and a rocket to get it all up into space. And this venture could also help scientists study a part of our atmosphere that we still don’t know too much about.

The Japanese company ALE, headed by astronomer Lena Okajima, is developing a technology to offer artificial meteor showers wherever and whenever you want. A natural meteor -- or a shooting star -- is just a bit of space dust burning up in the atmosphere. So, theoretically, it shouldn’t be that hard to create artificial ones.

Here’s the plan: They want to launch a small cube-like satellite -- about 50 centimeters across -- packed with tiny chemical pellets. The satellite would reach an altitude of 400 or 500 kilometers, then launch these pellets in the opposite direction of its orbit so they would slow down and start falling to Earth. Once they reached an altitude of about 60 kilometers, they’d burn up just like natural meteors. The thing is, the chemical composition of the pellets is proprietary, so we have to take the company’s word for it that this’ll work.

But they’ve done some ground-level testing, and say that their artificial meteors will burn bright enough for earthbound spectators to see them. Plus, they say they can tweak the chemical formula to make the meteors any color they want. So... rainbow meteor shower, anyone?

Besides creating spectacles, the team also hopes this technology will fill a scientific need. The layer of the atmosphere where the pellets will burn up is part of Earth’s mesosphere. The mesosphere is sensitive to small chemical changes, like the addition of greenhouse gases, so studying its dynamics and composition could tell us more about how the atmosphere and climate are changing.

We can study lower parts of the atmosphere using balloons, and higher parts using rockets and spacecraft. But that 60-kilometer sweet spot is hard to reach with scientific instruments, so we don’t know that much about it. So scientists have been focusing on the meteors that burn up there, to observe the mesosphere: They use radar -- which uses radio waves -- and lidar -- which uses laser light -- to detect meteor trails, the electrons and ions that a meteor leaves behind as it burns up.

Monitoring the trails of natural meteors can provide information like how fast the wind is moving, the temperature of the nearby atmosphere, and more. But that’s only if scientists detect them in the first place, by having the right equipment pointed in the right direction, at the right time. With artificial meteor showers, though, there would be less guesswork. Scientists would know when and where a lot of meteors will fall at once, so they’d probably be able to get better measurements, which means a better picture of how the mesosphere is moving and changing.

Also, the light a meteor gives off can provide data about its chemical composition. So, presumably, ALE would have to share information with scientists about what exactly is in their chemical pellets. And, by comparing the light spectrum of a natural meteor to one of those artificial ones -- which has a known composition -- scientists may learn more about what natural meteoroids are made of... and what kinds of atoms they’re bringing into the atmosphere when they burn up.

So the start-up says it hopes their technology will help atmospheric scientists, but in the end, they mostly just want to put on a show. And these celestial light shows won’t come cheap. The projected cost is around 8,100 US dollars... per meteor. And you can’t really skimp on meteors to make a good meteor shower.

So expect to see these shows at huge public events... or, like, Tony Stark’s birthday party. In fact, the company hopes to debut this technology at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony. And who knows? Someday plain ol’ fireworks may become a thing of the past, and instead, we could mark our celebrations with custom meteor showers.

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