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Rob Suggs, Bill Cooke and Jeff Anderson of the Marshall Space Flight Center Engineering Directorate have constructed an experimental "meteor radar" in Huntsville, AL, to monitor near-Earth meteoroid activity above the southeastern United States.
As meteoroids plunge through Earth's atmosphere they disintegrate at an altitude of 80 to 130 km. The fiery trails they leave behind are full of ionized gases that reflect radio waves. Amateur radio operators routinely use a layer of Earth's atmosphere called the ionosphere (which is ionized by solar ultraviolet radiation) to bounce shortwave signals over the horizon for long distance communications. Disintegrating meteoroids create a short-lived mini-ionosphere that disappears as electron and ions in the trail can recombine to form neutral molecules. But for a few seconds distant radio signals can bounce off the meteor trail, giving rise to a radar-like "ping" in receivers below.