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Speedy camera captures snowflakes in midair (pictures)

MASC, or the Multi-Angle Snowflake Camera, photographs snowflakes in 3D as they fall naturally. The results could help improve weather forecasting data -- and they look stunning to boot.

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Leslie_Katz.jpg

Leslie Katz

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1 of 8 Tim Garrett, University of Utah, 2013

Scroll through our gallery to see some stunning images of snowflakes captured in free fall using the University of Utah's MASC, or Multi Angle Snowflake Camera. The system -- under development for three years -- takes 9- to 37-micron-resolution stereographic photographs of snowflakes from three angles while simultaneously measuring the speed of their fall, a highly influential factor in the location and lifetime of a storm.

"Until our device, there was no good instrument for automatically photographing the shapes and sizes of snowflakes in free fall," says Tim Garrett, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah and one of the developers of the system. "We are photographing these snowflakes completely untouched by any device, as they exist naturally in the air."

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2 of 8 Tim Garrett, University of Utah, 2013
MASC, made by University of Utah spinoff Fallgatter Technologies, includes three industrial-grade high-speed cameras: two 1.2-megapixel cams and a 5-megapixel shooter. The cameras are triggered by IR motion sensors that are sensitive to snowflakes ranging from 100 micrometers to 3 centimeters (about 1.2 inches) and designed to filter out slow variations in ambient light. The goal of the system is to improve computer simulations of falling snow and how it interacts with radar. But it also produces really pretty pictures.
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3 of 8 Tim Garrett, University of Utah, 2013
The hope is that data produced by MASC can be used to improve the use of radar for weather and snowpack forecasting, and reveal more about how snowy weather can degrade microwave (radar) communications. Once the multi-angle camera has snapped photos, researchers use image-analysis software to characterize snowflakes by shape, complexity, size, and estimated mass.
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4 of 8 Tim Garrett, University of Utah, 2013
The team behind MASC has filmed the snowflakes over the past two winters at Alta Ski Area, located about 25 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah. One multi-angle camera setup is situated at an elevation of 8,500 feet, the other at 10,000 feet. The National Science Foundation funded the filming of the snowflakes; NASA and the U.S. Army helped fund the development of the camera.
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5 of 8 Tim Garrett, University of Utah, 2013
The complex patterns of a snowflake can look like works of art, but atmospheric scientists say errors in measuring a snowflake's shape and size can lead to mistakes in forecasting storms' duration and location.
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6 of 8 Tim Garrett, University of Utah, 2013
The robust MASC, which runs unattended, can capture tens of thousands of images in a single day.
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7 of 8 Tim Garrett, University of Utah, 2013
The system's superspeedy exposure time of one-40,000th of a second means it can capture images of fast-falling snowflakes with little to no blur.
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8 of 8 Tim Garrett, University of Utah 2013
As this image demonstrates, no two snowflakes are alike.

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