If a signal gets picked up by a meteor detector but it’s not a meteor, what could it be? One simple (and probably too logical) way to find out is to look out the window. However, what if there’s nothing to see but the signal is still there? Any video available? Nope. Any eyewitnesses with better viewpoints? Nope. That’s the situation we have right now in Washington DC (don’t worry — the government isn’t involved … yet) where a meteor monitor known as livemeteors.com is located and has posted a mysterious signal it picked up on December 2nd that has generated much speculation but no definitive answer. (The signal can be be heard at the site and here).
There seems to be little information on livemeteors.com. According to its website, it uses a VHS receiver connected to a TV antenna pointed at a TV tower in Canada, possibly in Timmons, Ontario. That describes a typical hobbyist system for listening to and recording meteor echoes. According to meteorscan.com, meteors burning up in the atmosphere leave an ionization trail which reflects radio waves. The reflected waves shift in frequency according to the speed of the meteor and those shifts can be translated into an audio ping and displayed on 3D graphics.
That’s what livemeteors.com picked up and recorded for two minutes … except for the part about the meteor. No meteors were seen and none were picked up by other trackers like the American Meteor Society. So what caused this mysterious signal?
OK, it’s too early to be yelling “Aliens!” One suggestion is that the signal was caused by a strange phenomena known as Sporadic E. This is an infrequent (hence the name) form of radio wave behavior caused by small clouds of ionized gas in the lower atmosphere that can cause VHF signals to bounce farther than normal. These are more common around the summer solstice but can happen even more sporadically around the winter solstice. However, that’s still three weeks away. And no, the Supermoon had nothing to do with it either.
“Aliens!” Not yet. The anomaly could have been caused by space weather, but there were no major electromagnetic disturbances at the time. It turns out that an airplane could cause the false signal as well, but no one saw a plane in the right location at the right time.
Since only one tracking site reported the signal, it could be a glitch in their equipment. Since it hasn’t happened before, that’s worth watching (anyone can watch the feed at livemeteors.com).
OK, all together now: “Aliens!” While commenters at some sites have pointed out that this type of amateur meteor tracking system can actually pick up the signal of a stealth aircraft, the fact that no one else heard it kind of knocks that one out of the sky … even if you can’t see it.
The money right now is on Sporadic E, which would also be a great nickname for a heavy metal drummer with an occasional drug problem