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Nullarbor fireball cameras lead scientists to location of rare meteorite

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September 21, 2009

The three all sky cameras on the Nullarbor Plain, Australia, took photographs of fireballs...

The three all sky cameras on the Nullarbor Plain, Australia, took photographs of fireballs and their orbits in the night sky, which led to the rare find of a meteorite and its asteroid beginnings

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Not long ago, Gizmag featured an article about scientists capturing a rare image of upwards lightning. Now a different set of ‘men in white coats’ has taken shots of fireballs streaking across the night sky that then led to the discovery of a tiny and extremely rare meteorite in Australia’s vast Nullarbor Plain. Not only that, the group also traced the meteorite’s roots back to its orbit and the asteroid from where it came.

Using cameras and sophisticated mathematics, the research team, which includes members from Australia and the UK, deployed three 'all sky cameras' on the Nullarbor Plain to form a fireball camera network.

The cameras take a single time lapse picture of the sky throughout the entire night to record any fireballs over the Plain. Combined with some clever mathematics, researchers were then able to calculate the original orbit of the object and where to search for the meteorite on the ground.

The incredible ‘detective’ work was detailed recently in a paper published in Science.

Meteorites discovered with known orbits are extremely rare, so the achievement is a remarkable breakthrough in planetary science.

Cheap sample

The ability to track meteorites back to their asteroid home also means it is an inexpensive method of sampling that asteroid, rather than conducting a multi million- or billion-dollar space mission.

CSIRO Exploration and Mining scientist, and co-author of the paper, Dr Rob Hough said the search for the meteorite was made easier because the Nullarbor Plain is marked by white limestone rocks. Even though the meteorite was dark, it was very tiny, making the discovery still quite amazing.

"This particular meteorite is also very interesting because of its rarity. It is an achondrite – a basalt - with a composition that suggest an asteroid from the inner asteroid belt," said Hough.

He said the 'all sky camera' network had been an extremely successful project and had spotted many fireballs.

"The Plain is a very difficult place to have technology like the cameras and the fieldwork to find the meteorite is not trivial," he said.

"The logistics are a really important aspect of a project like this and it takes a lot of planning to make it work."

Western Australia Chief Scientist, Professor Lyn Beazley, described it as an extremely exciting finding. Beazley hoped the discovery would lead us to better understand the evolution of the solar system.

"It will complement Western Australia's radio astronomy research and, in particular, Australia's commitment to the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope, " Beazley said.

"This also represents an extraordinary collaborative effort between CSIRO, the Western Australian Museum and academics from the UK and takes advantage of the unique features of Western Australia, which allows the tracking, locating and collecting of rare meteorite material."

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