Juvenile coyote inspects jackalope decoy (Photo: Ashcraft)

What does a meteor sound like when it hits the atmosphere? Ask Thomas Ashcraft, who is SFI’s artist and citizen scientist in residence.

Ashcraft has been profiled in The New York Times for detecting and photographing “sprites,” fleeting, almost subliminal, luminous events that occur above super-strong lightning strikes.

At SFI, he has converted a tiny building into a mysteriously atmospheric wunderkammer (wonder room) called “Heliotown II.” The building, formerly a pool house, is now home to a series of tiny dioramas that attempt to expand space and time.

Ashcraft was a farmer in the Ozarks in the 1980s, but something called him to Santa Fe. First, he started studying the sun and from there he “followed his nose.” Now he has a laboratory set up on his property near Santa Fe, where his radio observatory monitors the complex sounds that space dust makes colliding with the atmosphere, and a Jupiter observatory that operates in cooperation with NASA. A video camera runs 24/7, capturing meteor strikes and fireballs through an automated system that also records their sounds.

A few years ago he became interested in what was going on at night around his house, so he started recording the nocturnal scene and was “surprised at how dynamic the night time was.” He put a couple of trail cameras up at the SFI Cowan Campus with a jackalope decoy in the foreground. Most of the animals passing, such as coyotes and deer, would stop in their tracks to investigate it, then mark it, or, as Ashcraft puts it, “They were leaving peemails for each other.”

“I was discovering an invisible world right outside SFI’s windows,” he says. This fascinating collection of trail cam videos offer viewers a rare glimpse of SFI’s non-human inhabitants. They can be viewed on his website, heliotown.com.

“I have the poet’s license to go anywhere,” Aschraft says. “In essence, what it comes down to for me at this phase of my life as a naturalist and scientific-instrument builder are four words: Explore. Examine. Discover. Report.”