Feb. 1, 2013 at 8:40 PM ET
They say no two snowflakes look the same — well, scientists at the University of Utah aren't going to take that for granted. They've devised a photography rig that can take detailed photos and measurements of thousands of snowflakes in a single night.
It's called the Multi-Angle Snowflake Camera, and it's just what it sounds like. Three cameras are arrayed around an infrared sensor that detects the presence of a snowflake and tells the cameras to fire. By lighting the snowflake carefully and using a super-short exposure (1/25,000th of a second), they can get tack-sharp images of snowflakes on the fly.
The system is so efficient that it can take tens ofthousands of shots in a single night. While that may be too many to browse through for fun, it's a huge benefit to researchers. Meteorologists only have a partial understanding of snowflakes — their size, density, shape, fall speed, things like that — because, naturally enough, they tend to melt before anyone can get a good look at them.
MASC is the project of University of Utah atmospheric scientist Tim Garrett, and the setup has been spun off as a separate company, Fallgatter Technologies. Right now, the company's device is documenting snowflakes at Utah's famous Alta ski area.
Scientists in the 1970s also measured snowflakes, but it was by hand, which must have been extremely delicate (and cold) work — "I knew the guy who did it and he felt he needed to get glasses because of this project," Garrett told LiveScience.
And if the snowflakes in the pictures don't look much like the symmetrical geometric shapes one usually think of (and which were recently captured in stunning fashion by macro photographer Andrew Osokin), that's because most "snowflakes" are actually clumps made up of smaller flakes that have collided or broken apart.
Achieving a better understanding of snowflakes means a better understanding of snowy weather systems. Alta, for example, can use it to gauge the quality of the snow falling, and the Army is planning to use the device to improve its avalanche prediction techniques.
You can watch a live-updating feed of recent snowflakes from Alta, or check the project's highlight page, showing a few outstanding examples of what the system can capture.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.