July 9th, 2015
The basic idea is fairly simple: get a lot of people all over North America to watch the Perseids on their maximum, recording the time of fall of each Perseid using their smartphone, using a program that will automatically email the results to me when they’re done. Then I analyze the mass of data looking for spatial patterns. To convert the spatial distribution of Perseids hitting North American into their original spatial distribution in space, I must carry out a rather complicated calculation using spherical trigonometry. Then I will test various hypotheses regarding spatial structures using statistical methods.
The scientific merit of this arises from questions regarding the distribution of Perseids in their meteor stream. The mechanisms by which meteors are ejected from comets are still little-known, and identifying any patterns in their spatial distribution might shed some light on this. I must confess that, because the Perseids are an old meteor shower, we would expect that most such concentrations would have dissipated by now. Nevertheless, we simply don’t know about those distributions. The question arose many years ago, when human observers noticed that shower meteors seem to come nonrandomly in time. You’ll see a bunch of them, and then nothing for a long time. This issue has been tackled many times in a variety of different ways, and the result has always been the conclusion that the meteors are randomly distributed. I myself carried out one such analysis of the Leonid meteor storm of 1999, reaching the same conclusion.
However, all of these analyses are temporal; nobody has ever pulled off a spatial analysis because it requires lots of observations over a huge area. In an ideal world, we’d scatter hundreds of image-intensifier systems all over the continent to get such data, but such an effort would be horridly expensive and is out of the question. But we already have thousands of human observers who go out every year to watch the Perseids. And one other thing has changed: almost all of these people have smartphones. Those machines can readily be programmed with software to handle all the timing, recording, and transmitting issues.
In 2015, the Perseids will reach maximum on Thursday morning, August 13th. The moon will be new, which is perfect for watching meteors.