Space rock recovery with the UK Fireball network and Global Fireball Observatory

A Desert Fireball Network camera in the Outback of Australia. Courtesy of the Desert Fireball Network.

By Dr Luke Daly, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Glasgow.

Scotland has some of the world’s best dark sky national parks that provide the ideal environment to admire the night sky. These dark sky national parks also make ideal locations to image some of the Solar Systems more spectacular firework displays: the atmospheric entry of a meteoroid that generates a brilliant trail of light known as a meteor or fireball. In some rare cases some of this rock survives this fiery transition and falls to Earth as a meteorite.

Meteorites are important scientifically as they represent pieces of other worlds. This include pieces of Mars, the cores of long dead planets, as well as the oldest materials in the Solar System that provide a window into what the environment was like when the Sun first started to shine. We have over 60,000 meteorites in worldwide collections that have provided the basis of our understanding of how the Solar System formed and evolved. However, one crucial piece of information is missing: (with the exception of Martian meteorites) we don’t know where any of these meteorites come from. Fortunately, meteorites fall out the sky all the time, to the tune of approximately 50,000 tonnes per day. Most of this extraterrestrial material are sand sized fragments, but approximately one fist sized object should fall somewhere in Scotland every couple of years. The trick then is capturing them on camera to find out where they landed and where they came from.

Fireball observation, orbit and meteorite recovery of the Murilli meteorite by the Desert Fireball Network. Courtesy of the Desert Fireball Network.

Camera networks such as the Desert Fireball Network in Australia among others are attempting to acquire this information by using an array of autonomous cameras that continuously image the night sky to capture a fireball as it passes through the atmosphere. If multiple cameras see the same fireball we are able to triangulate where the meteorite landed as well calculate its orbit back into space to find out where it came from and provide a link between meteorites and asteroids.

The successes of networks like the Desert Fireball network in recovering meteorites mean this approach is going global. The University of Glasgow with Imperial College London and Curtin University is constructing a UK fireball network to link into this Global Fireball Observatory which will include 3-4 cameras in Scotland. The UK Fireball Network is also teaming up with other UK based camera networks such as UKMON and SCAMP collectively known as UKFall. We have also developed a free app called Fireballs in the Sky so if members of the public see a fireball you can report it to us, including its trajectory, using your smart phone to help us figure out where the meteorite landed. Together we aim to recover the first meteorite fall in the UK for nearly 30 years and the first meteorite in Scotland for over 100 years. Sound like a plan?

A light pollution map of the UK the dots are locations that UK Fireball network cameras will be installed including three planned for the dark sky parks in Scotland.

With thanks to Dr Luke Daly and everyone at the UK Fireball Network and the Global Fireball Observatory.

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