Infrasound and Meteors

Humans typically can hear sound waves in the range 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. Frequencies below 20 Hz are called infrasound and frequences above 20 kHz are called ultrasound. The speed of sound in dry air at a temperature of 20˚ C (68˚ F) and an atmospheric pressure of 1 bar (slightly less than the average air pressure at sea level) is 343 m/s. Dividing the speed of sound by the frequency (in Hz) gives us the wavelength of the sound waves: 17 m (56 ft.) at 20 Hz, and 17 mm (0.67 in.) at 20 kHz.

Meteoroids enter the Earth’s atmosphere (thus becoming meteors) at hypersonic velocities, 35 to 270 times the local speed of sound (Mach 35 to Mach 270). Only a small portion of the total energy of the incoming meteoroid is transformed into visible light: most of the energy dissipated goes into acoustic shock waves. If the meteoroid is on the order of a centimeter (0.4 inches) or larger, infrasound waves are generated that can be detected on the ground, albeit after a delay of many seconds to minutes.

Infrasound waves can travel long distances, but higher frequencies are attenuated due to spreading losses and absorption over much shorter distances. There are many natural and man-made sources of infrasound waves, so identifying an incoming meteoroid as the source of the infrasound requires that we also “see” and record the meteoroid optically (the “meteor”), through radar, or VLF radio emissions from the meteoroid’s ionization trail in the Earth’s atmosphere. Ideally, all of these methods should be used at each observing station to best characterize the size and kinetic energy of each incoming meteoroid.

Infrasound detectors are not yet an off-the-shelf commodity. Chapparal Physics (http://www.chaparralphysics.com) is one good source, but seeing as they do not list any prices you know the equipment will be expensive.

An infrasound detector is basically an extremely sensitive microphone that can detect tiny changes in air pressure. A peak sensitivity around 1 Hz is probably a good place to start for detecting meteors. Meteors large and/or energetic enough to be detected on the ground are rare, not even one a day for a given station, so automated recording will be necessary.

Finally, it is important to know that louder sounds that we cannot hear (infrasound and even ultrasound) can sometimes have adverse physical and psychological effects on humans. The cause can be as simple as a malfunctioning piece of mechanical or electrical equipment, or as nefarious as a sonic weapon. It would be advantageous to have a readily available and affordable infrasound and ultrasound detector to detect problem emissions.

For example, you might want an

  • Infrasound detector that maps 0.02 Hz – 20 Hz to the 20 Hz – 20 kHz audible range
  • Ultrasound detector that maps 20 kHz – 20 MHz to the 20 Hz – 20 kHz audible range

References
Silber, Elizabeth A. (2018). Infrasound observations of bright meteors: the fundamentals. WGN, Journal of the International Meteor Organization, 46:2.


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