A shooting star isn’t just a streak in the sky. It’s a fragment of our solar system, colliding with our planet at thousands of kilometres per hour.
If it survives its fiery trip through our atmosphere, it can be studied to help us understand the workings of our solar system. That’s why researchers at Curtin University are keen to get their hands on them. By downloading the Fireballs in the Sky app and reporting the meteors you see, you can help them do it.
How to catch a falling star
The key to finding a meteorite is knowing where to look. Not all meteors make it to the surface, and the ones that do might only be a fraction of their original size. Without a good idea of where that object landed, finding a meteorite is looking for a pebble in a desert.
But meteorite hunters have a few ways to improve their chances. As a meteor hurtles towards Earth, it generates a fireball. If researchers can get reports of the fireball’s direction from more than one place, they can narrow down their search area using a mathematical process called triangulation. If they can get those reports while they’re still fresh in peoples’ minds, they’ll be much more accurate than asking for details later.
That’s exactly what Fireballs in the Sky does. The app records the location and time from the sensors in your phone. Then, to get the most accurate report possible, the app gives you a tiny window into a simulated night sky. There, you can trace out the path of your meteor while pointing your phone at exactly where you saw it, and tweak the timing, sound and colour of your recreated fireball until it looks exactly right. And if your sighting is later confirmed, you’ll get updated on that as well.
This might just seem like a bit of fun, but it has a serious purpose. Humans aren’t great at estimating angles or times of the things they remember seeing. Our memories of both height and direction, for example, can be out by up to 30 degrees. By making their reports visual and interactive, Fireballs in the Sky produces much more accurate data. Thanks to this unique approach, the app has had over 28,000 downloads and won both a Premier’s Science Award and a Eureka Prize. It’s also attracted the attention of NASA, with the team heading to Houston this year to launch the app worldwide.
Why hunt for meteorites?
Meteorites are free samples of the history and composition of our solar system. They can come from all kinds of objects, all over space. Some are debris from collisions in the asteroid belt, ejected towards earth. Some have been kicked up from even bigger collisions with planets like Mars, bringing us our only up-close examples of Martian geology. Others might never have been part of a larger object at all, preserving material from the very beginning of our solar system. Each meteorite is unique and tells us something new about our universe.
Your observations can help here too. Just as they can predict the meteor’s path downwards to find its landing site, they can also be traced backwards to tell us what part of the solar system it came from.
Australia is a great place to hunt for meteorites. It has an enormous land area, increasing the chances that something falls here. Most of it is flat and very dry, making meteorites easier to find and preserving them where they land.
So far, reports from Fireballs in the Sky have helped spot at least one meteorite touching down. With the help of the researchers’ automated cameras scattered across the desert, that meteorite was found – and got to meet Carol Redford, the stargazer who spotted it.
Who knows? Maybe your meteorite could be next.