Here in Perth, the 11th of August was a day like any other. The Sun came up, the lorikeets screeched, the gibbons in the zoo howled at each other, there was a bit of cloud, people got up and went to work. For some of us, though, it was a bit of a strange day.
In 2006, I began experimenting with radios trying to pick up the reflections of distant radio transmissions from the ionised trails of meteors in the upper atmosphere, with help from Eddie Blackhurst, an engineer at Jodrell. Eventually we got a working system together, and for the last year or so it has been recording data 24 hours a day. I accidentally broke the machine when I was home in June, but thanks to the efforts of the guys back at Jodrell we had a new machine up and running by 5pm Perth time on the 11th, just hours before the predicted peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower. I spent the entire evening trying to get a working system back up and running. It was a long night.
Meanwhile, something big was stirring in the Twitterverse. Masterminded by @NewburyAS, #meteorwatch was a global star party utilising Twitter to link astronomers around the world, all observing the same event, tweeting their observations and answering questions. It started off with a few keen enthusiasts, many people re-tweeted the initial announcement, and by the 11th it had gone truly global. At the height of the event, the list of Twitter's trending topics contained not one, but two references to the event: #meteorwatch and "meteor shower". This meant, of course, that many people who had never heard of meteor showers or the Perseids got curious and actually went outside and had a look at the sky. Many people who would probably never have looked up at the sky otherwise, went outside and saw shooting stars for the first time, then came back inside and tweeted about it. As the topics moved up the trending list, more and more people got curious what it was all about and there was a snowball sort of effect.
From where I live, the Perseids are not really visible as the radiant is too far north. I did have the radio receiver at Jodrell though, and through Twitter I could watch reports come in from all around the northern hemisphere. Watching tweets from people who had just seen their first ever shooting star was great, this was direct public outreach on an unexpectedly large scale. Between them, @NewburyAS, @ksastro and @astronomy2009uk answered questions from all over, and people kept them pretty busy over the course of a couple of days through the height of this year's Perseid activity.
All in all a great success, thanks to @NewburyAS and @ksastro who did a superb job keeping up with it all. If you're on Twitter, follow these two and watch out for future events. Even if you're not, you can always check out the new AstroTwitter blog for upcoming events.