[meteorite-list] Sizzling Skies
From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu Apr 22 09:41:54 2004
January 6, 2001
NINETY MINUTES before sunrise on 7 April 1978, an extraterrestrial guest
arrived over Eastern Australia. For about 20 seconds it streaked across the
sky leaving a bright trail that turned night into day, before finally
exploding into glowing fragments that vanished into the sea. This meteor was
just one of thousands that enter our atmosphere every year, yet dozens of
witnesses in Newcastle and Sydney reported something particularly strange
about this visitor. Just before it blew apart, it produced an unearthly
soundtrack of hisses, crackles and pops.
Reports of noisy meteors appear in the Bible, yet the cause of their bizarre
sounds has always been a mystery. One person might hear the popping and
whooshing clearly while another, standing just a few metres away, hears
nothing. Explaining this oddity is especially tricky since there is almost
no hard scientific data to go on: even if you spent two hours every night
looking for them, you might have to wait fifty years to hear one.
Yet researchers believe they are finally closing in on the origins of these
strange sounds. All they need now are some meteors on which to test their
theories. But rather than waiting around for one to show up, they're hoping
that artificial meteors--redundant satellites brought down from orbit to
burn up in the atmosphere--will give them the vital data they need to settle
it once and for all. At the same time, there's a good chance that they will
solve another age-old mystery--the ghostly, rustling songs sometimes heard
by observers of the northern and southern lights.
One of the pioneers of these studies is Colin Keay, a physicist at the
University of Newcastle in Australia. The day after the New South Wales
fireball fell to Earth, Keay was phoned by a colleague at the Australia
Museum in Sydney who asked him if he would search for any fragments of the
meteorite that might have landed on dry ground. During this hunt, he
discovered something about the fireball that would change the course of his
The meteorite, Keay calculated, had streaked across the sky at almost 20
kilometres per second, 30 kilometres up, yet he met dozens of reliable
witnesses who claimed to have heard it produce strange noises as it flew
overhead--anything from "a low moaning" to "an express train travelling at
high speed". If these sounds had come directly from the meteorite, people on
the ground below shouldn't have heard them until almost a minute after it
exploded. It would be like seeing a distant flash of lightning and hearing
the thunderclap at the same instant.
What finally clinched it for Keay was meeting two witnesses who claimed the
sounds first alerted them to the meteorite trail. "When two people reported
hearing the sounds before seeing the light of the fireball, I knew it
couldn't be psychological," says Keay. "There had to be something to it."
Intrigued, he set to work to uncover the mechanism behind these noises. He
spent months creating and discarding one physical model after another.
Finally, he settled on one that he suspected was the only way to explain how
an observer could hear a meteor's fiery entry at the same time as seeing it.
It all comes down to electromagnetic radiation.
Keay suspected that the light given off by a meteor's trail must be
accompanied by invisible electromagnetic radiation in the form of very low
frequency (VLF) radio waves at frequencies from 10 hertz to 30 kilohertz.
Travelling at exactly the same speed as visible light, these waves would
reach the observer as soon as the meteorite itself came into view. The
problem is that you can't hear radio waves. The only way you might hear them
is with the help of a suitable "transducer"--an object that acts rather like
a loudspeaker, converting electromagnetic signals into audible vibrations.
After some experiments in a soundproof chamber, Keay found that all kinds of
things can act as transducers. Aluminium foil, thin wires, pine needles or
dry, frizzy hair all respond to a VLF field. The radio waves induce small
charges in such objects, and these charges force the object to vibrate in
time with the oscillating waves, effectively making them act like the
diaphragm in a loudspeaker. Even a pair of glasses, he discovered, will
vibrate slightly. And since they rest against the bones of the skull,
glasses could increase an observer's chances of hearing VLF waves.
The transducer effect would explain why some people heard noises from the
Australian meteor while others close by heard nothing. Those who heard
sounds were simply nearer to the "speakers"--transducers such as pine trees,
for example. It would even explain why attempts to record these sounds have
always failed. Scientists go out of their way to place their microphones
well away from any possible sources of interference such as trees or
electric cables. But without any transducers nearby, the meteors would
So the transducer effect seems a plausible source of the strange noises, but
how do meteors generate VLF waves? "I was getting nowhere until I got the
idea to look at turbulence," Keay says. He remembered a theory put forward
by physicist Fred Hoyle which used turbulent plasmas to explain sunspots.
Perhaps, thought Keay, interactions between the Earth's magnetic field and
the plasma in a meteor's trail could somehow create VLF waves.
When a meteor crashes into the Earth's dense atmosphere, it ionises the air
around it, leaving a blazing trail of plasma. For a few metres behind the
meteor, this trail flows smoothly, but a little further back it becomes
turbulent. Since a plasma is a mixture of ions and electrons, it can trap
and hold the Earth's magnetic field. "The plasma is swirling so fast that
the magnetic field is trapped and scrambled up like magnetic spaghetti,"
explains Keay. But as the meteor races across the sky, the plasma left
behind cools, and the electrons and ions in it recombine almost immediately.
Without the electrical charges to keep the magnetic field lines tangled,
they suddenly pop free and vibrate like a plucked violin string. It is these
vibrations, Keay believes, that broadcast VLF electromagnetic waves over a
range of several hundred kilometres (see Diagram, below).
Keay has named the sounds generated by these radio waves "electrophonic"
noise. He even believes that VLF waves are responsible for another eerie
effect: the rustling and sighing sounds of the northern and southern lights.
For centuries strange noises have been said to accompany the exquisite
curtains of colour seen in the sky near the Earth's magnetic poles. These
sounds are heard often enough to be known as the "whisper of souls of the
dead" in Eskimo folklore. Yet just as with the burps and whistles of
meteors, some people hear the swish of the aurora while others nearby are
left in silence--one reason the sounds were often written off as a
Auroras are created as the Earth's magnetic field captures charged particles
from the solar wind. These particles stream along the field lines and down
towards the magnetic poles. Here they strike the upper atmosphere and ionise
nitrogen and oxygen molecules to produce the characteristic red and green
glow of the auroras. During these electrical "storms", scientists have
recorded abnormally high electric fields and many believe these fields are
responsible for the noises auroras emit. They suggest that they cause "brush
discharge", which occurs when electric fields induce an electric potential
gradient in objects on the ground. If these objects have points or
spikes--such as those on leaves or pine needles, for instance--there can be
an electric discharge at their tips that creates an audible crackling.
But Keay believes that the electric fields are rarely strong enough to
create brush discharge. The whispering of the auroras must have another
cause, he says. He believes that just as with meteor noises, auroral sounds
are generated by VLF waves acting on transducers such as hair. These waves
seem to be produced by ions and electrons from the solar wind that are
reflected back and forth in the Earth's magnetic field.
Keay's model might explain sounds from large meteors and auroras, but it
doesn't seem to explain the noises that very small meteors make. In November
1998, astronomers from all over the world flocked to Mongolia for the
biggest Leonid meteor display in decades. Over two nights, they witnessed
more meteors than they could hope to see in four years of normal
observations. There were even seven reports of electrophonic
sounds--including the first brief meteor "pop" ever captured on tape,
recorded by the Croatian-based group, International Leonid Watch.
Previous recordings of meteors had produced a time delay between the visual
observation and the sound, allowing the possibility of interference or even
the odd sonic boom to slip in. But the Croatian researchers showed that the
VLF signal picked up by radio receivers coincided with the sounds picked up
by microphones and an image recorded on video to within one-hundredth of a
second: enough to convince all but the most sceptical that this wasn't a
Yet according to Keay's theory, there shouldn't have been any noise at all.
Leonids are small objects made of porous, fragile material. Weighing no more
than a dried pea, the average Leonid burns up long before it reaches the
lower atmosphere, where turbulence in its plasma tail can generate VLF
waves. According to Keay's model, only a giant Leonid, upwards of one metre
across would stand any chance of producing electrophonics. "When you
calculate how bright a meteor of that size would be, the number becomes
enormous and would violate the observations," says Dejan Vinkovic, an
astrophysicist from the University of Kentucky who attended the Mongolian
display. Also, the sounds from Leonids are short pops or clicks, quite
different from the prolonged hisses accounted for by Keay's theory.
Martin Beech, an astronomer at the University of Regina, Canada, believes he
can resolve the problem. He has studied noisy Leonids on and off for the
past decade and has just written a paper that expands his theory to explain
these strange pops. "We produced the name 'burster' to distinguish them from
the longer-duration sounds that Keay researched," says Beech.
In a model developed with colleague Luigi Foschini, the electromagnetic
signal is formed suddenly when a fast, light meteor breaks up. When this
happens, says Beech, a shock wave explodes out into the plasma trail just
behind it. Since the electrons and ions in the plasma have different masses,
the lighter electrons tend to ride the front of the shock and are separated
out from the slower-moving ions. "That sets up something called the space
charge," says Beech, "where you've got a separation of the negative charge
of the electrons from the positively charged ions." This separation is
unstable and the charges recombine almost immediately, but not before the
short-lived electric field generates a sudden pulse of VLF waves. When this
burst reaches the ground it creates audible sound in the same way as the
radio waves from larger meteors (see Diagram, opposite).
Keay likens these electrophonic pops to the audible "click" that occurs at
the moment a nuclear bomb detonates. "A nuclear bomb is a violently
exploding plasma that causes such a shock to the Earth's magnetic field that
it generates a pulse of electromagnetic radiation," says Keay. Beech agrees
that the physics may be similar. "But to do that you need something that is
literally like a nuclear explosion, and in the case of bursters they just
don't have that kind of energy," he says. Despite the progress, it seems
that there is still no single theory that can explain all the effects
("Small, medium and large", p 15).
The real problem is that Beech and Keay simply don't have enough data to go
on. "With bursters, it is not entirely clear yet what sort of signal you'd
expect to see, and it's hard to look for something when you don't know what
it looks like," says Beech. To collect more information, he has set up an
all-sky video camera and microphone at the University of Regina. "Progress
in the future is going to depend upon getting reliable data," he says.
Vinkovic is also busy hunting for noisy meteors. Last year he set up the
Global Electrophonic Fireball Survey to gather reports of meteor noises. So
far it has 20 separate incidents on its database, and Vinkovic plans to
collect further electrophonic information by persuading other international
meteor surveys to start listening for sounds.
He is also looking to artificial meteors for help. "Even when you observe
electrophonic sounds from a meteor, you don't know what properties that body
had when it entered the atmosphere. You don't know the physical parameters,"
he says. The answer, he has realised, is to listen to satellites as they
burn up in the atmosphere. They will behave just like natural meteors, but
you know their size and exactly what material they're made from. If you can
find out when and where they're coming down, he says, you should be able to
get a good idea of what's going on.
Recently, when Motorola drew up plans to dispose of its 66 Iridium
satellites, Vinkovic thought that he had hit the electrophonic jackpot. Now
a rescue package means the Iridium network looks set to stay up there for
the time being, but Vinkovic is not too despondent. Other artificial
meteors, such as failed communications satellites, are regularly brought
burning down to Earth. The Russian space station Mir is coming down in
February. And there are even unconfirmed reports that the space shuttle
returns to Earth with an electrophonic crackle. Vinkovic has a busy time
ahead, but he knows that only hard evidence will silence the sceptics.
Colin Keay, on the other hand, feels that electrophonics and the theory he
has pioneered are on a firm enough footing to put the ball back into the
cynics' court. "I believe that I've solved the problem and started a new
science," he says. "It is healthy for people to doubt, but the onus is on
them to prove their doubts." The challenge to physicists is clear--you may
not subscribe to these theories, but do you have any better ideas?
Small, medium and large
THE researchers admit that their efforts to account for electrophonic
sound do not provide anything like the whole picture. Colin Keay's
plasma-turbulence theory works well for long-duration sounds from large
fireballs, and Martin Beech's burster model may work for lightweight
meteors, but there are still a number of reports that neither can explain
on its own. The real answer may lie in a mixture of both. If a Leonid
disintegrates gradually on entry rather than its more typical
catastrophic break up, for instance, a repeated burster effect could
resemble the longer-duration sound modelled by Keay. There may well be
other mechanisms at work that scientists just haven't considered yet.
"Personally, I don't think there is one single theory that can explain
everything going on out there," says Dejan Vinkovic of the Global
Electrophonic Fireball Survey. He thinks that meteors must be able to
distort the Earth's magnetic field, even at heights where the air is too
thin to create turbulence. In preliminary calculations, Vinkovic has
found that this distortion could start at the edge of the ionosphere,
some 100 kilometres above the ground. But the question remains, how?
Harriet Williams is a science writer based in London
Received on Fri 05 Jan 2001 11:52:14 AM PST