Amature astronomer Chris Crawford of Jacksonville uses simple tools like a telescope and laptop computer to track meteorites over Southern Oregon night skies. He has developed a computerized mapping system to track patterns in meteorite showers in hopes of determining their origin and what type of comet they come from. 8/21/07 Denise Baratta - Denise Baratta

Catch a falling star

A rare meteor shower is headed our way early on the morning of Sept. 1, and falling star fancier Chris Crawford wants your help in tracking its progress — if you have a laptop computer and are willing to be out of bed at 4:36 a.m., that is.

Crawford, who lives a few miles south of Jacksonville, invented a program that allows large numbers of people to track meteors by clicking on it every time they see one. It feeds the data to a central computer at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., enabling scientists to use the data in real time for experiments.

NASA stumbled on the invention on the Internet, asked Crawford for a scaled-up version and invited the computer game designer to view the Aurigid Shower with a team aboard a corporate jet.

"This has never been done before, mapping what a meteor stream might look like, seeing the pattern from many points instead of from one observer," says Crawford, who designed software for Atari and is now bringing into production a new generation of games based on dramatic character interactions rather than violence.

Crawford's fascination with meteors began in 1964 while in high school, and "the first thing I noticed was that meteors came in bunches. I tried to determine if this was random and even did my college thesis on it, but it's still not been proven what that is."

A "self-unemployed" researcher, Crawford in 1999 set up his program to map the annual Leonid meteor shower and asked on the Internet for volunteers to serve as observer posts, thus getting the attention of NASA.

The meteor shower this Sept. 1 is noteworthy, Crawford says, because it's "exotic, irregular" and fairly new, originating from a faint comet called Kiess that first swept by our sun about 2,000 years ago.

According to NASA, "Comet Kiess swung by the sun and laid down a trail of dusty debris that has been drifting toward Earth's orbit ever since. On Sept. 1, 2007, the dusty trail and Earth will meet."

When a comet passes near the sun, its energy melts ice and ejects particles from the comet, which slowly move away from it, some eventually entering earth's gravitational field.

"The observations and data, once combined, will tell us how the particles were ejected from the parent comet," says Crawford. "We believe it was a virgin comet that never visited our solar system before about the time of Julius Caesar."

Volunteer observers may download the program from They can be online or may submit data by e-mail later. Participants will scan the sky to the east-northeast, in the constellation Auriga, at around 70 degrees. Entry of meteors should be at 4:36 a.m., give or take 10 minutes. The nearly full moon will make meteors dimmer, but you'll still be able to see them.

Crawford, who moved to Southern Oregon from the Silicon Valley 15 years ago, has almost completed "Storytron," a platform for "interactive storytelling" — games offering "drama instead of violence, people instead of things. You play with people in dramatic ways."

Crawford will be managing a team of meteor spotters on a Gulfstream jet. The plane is necessary because clouds can suddenly ruin everything for ground-bound observers — and because a lot of sensitive instruments, including image intensifiers (advanced night vision), need to be above most of the atmosphere.

The Aurigid shower is expected to rain down maybe 200 meteors an hour, but it could be a lot less or a lot more. While the Perseid and Leonid showers start showing a week or two before their peak, this one will last less than an hour.

However, no one knows. It could really be a "shower," he notes, which means more than 3,600 meteors an hour, such as happened with the dazzling Leonid shower of 1999.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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