Nasa's Meteor Counter App

The Meteor Counter project created an iPhone app and an Android app so you can count meteors streaking across the night sky. Your reports help Nasa’s researchers create better forecasts of meteor showers and understand the space environment around Earth and the Moon.

Meteors are the glowing trails of light created as small rocks and grains of dust plow through the upper atmosphere. These micrometeoroids create an impressive light show in the night sky. They pose no threat since they never make it to Earth’s surface. Things are different in space. Micrometeoroids may be small but they move fast. Very fast. Speeds approaching 70,000 meters per second pack a lot of energy into the small particles. Micrometeoroids sandblast the surfaces of spacecraft.  Even worse are the larger meteoroids. The Moon, without an atmosphere to stop meteoroids, may be a dangerous place for future astronauts. A meteoroid the size of your average cat would carve a nine-meter wide crater out of the lunar surface and send seventy-five tons of debris - heavier than a Boeing 737 - flying in all directions. 

The Meteoroid Environment Office coordinates Nasa’s meteoroid research and produces meteoroid forecasts. Nasa’s meteoroid researchers create forecasting models of meteor showers and based on data from radar and video systems that monitor the night sky. They also use digital and visual data collected by international networks of amateur volunteers like the American Meteor Society and the International Meteor Organization. Meteor-spotters send these groups reports that could be as simple as visual counts of the meteors streaking across the night sky. More advanced spotters report the brightness, location, color, and other features of each meteor.

Dr. Tony Phillips, editor of Nasa’s Science@Nasa news service and creator of the spaceweather website, developed Meteor Counter for Android and iOS smartphones. By making meteor-spotting more convenient, the Meteor Counter app crowdsources reports for Nasa’s researchers. Just tap on the app when you see a meteor. Where you tap tells the app how bright the meteor was. Audio notes lets you record extra comments like the path the meteor took across the sky. The app combines your taps with GPS and time data before sending them with your audio notes to Nasa.

Scientist do use the data. Nasa astronomer and MEO Lead Bill Cooke told Science@Nasa, "The data will help us discover new meteor showers, pinpoint comet debris streams, and map the distribution of meteoroids around Earth's orbit." Nasa’s Ladee science team use Meteor Counter data - at least until they crash the space probe into the lunar surface. Earth-based meteor counts gives the scientists context for the dust data Ladee collects in the lunar environment.

People on the iTunes Store gave Meteor Counter a 4-star rating while the Google Play store rates it 3.3 stars. Most people seem to like the app and its approachable introduction to meteor-spotting. Many of the criticisms target the infrequent updates to the app’s news and events feed. Others point to some practical limits. The app requires an Internet connection to transmit observations instantly, but many observers go to dark places beyond the reach of mobile connections. Others complain that the bright screen washes out their night vision. None of the criticisms have been addressed since the app’s release several years ago.