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Leicester scientists scouring skies for falling fireballs

Fireball recorded over Staffordshire by the SCAMP network in May 2024. Image recorded by the station at Space Park Leicester

Leading UK space scientists in Leicester are now part of an international network monitoring the Earth’s skies for signs of falling fireballs.

A special camera has been installed at Space Park Leicester, the University of Leicester’s pioneering £100 million science and innovation park, to detect fireballs and help scientists more efficiently recover meteorites when they fall to Earth from outer space.

Space Park Leicester is part of the FRIPON – the Fireball Recovery and InterPlanetary Observation Network – and in the past few days it identified a meteorite in the skies over the Midlands and recorded images of the aurora on Friday.

University of Leicester PhD student Niamh Topping said: “We were really excited to pick up a meteorite in the Midlands’ skies during the past few days.

“Researchers haven’t been able to locate the fall site for this particular meteorite but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until one of the meteorites we record in Leicester is recovered.”

Professor of Planetary Science John Bridges, who belongs to the University of Leicester’s School of Physics and Astronomy and Space Park Leicester, added: “We’re very proud to be part of the FRIPON scientific project which is operated by an international team of scientists.

“Its main objectives include detecting fireballs and computing their trajectories and orbits, calculating where meteorites have fallen, determining the meteorites’ origins and analysing recovered samples.

“The study of the properties of such interplanetary matter is incredibly important because it’s crucial to our understanding of the formation and evolution of the Solar System.”

The development comes in the run-up to the 60th anniversary of the largest meteorite fall observed in Britain which occurred in Leicestershire.

On Christmas Eve 1965, a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite fragment the size of a turkey broke up over the village of Barwell. It is special because one of its fragments contained a pebble which could be from another asteroid that smashed into pieces and became incorporated into the asteroid that the Barwell meteorite came from.

FRIPON optical camera station at Space Park Leicester

On average over 100 tons of extra-terrestrial material collide with Earth every day – mostly as small particles.

Scientists are keen to recover fallen meteorites quickly as once they land on Earth they rapidly become contaminated.

However, during the 20th century there were fewer meteorite recoveries than in the previous century.

FRIPON aims to increase the number of recoveries by triggering a field search within 24 hours of a meteorite falling to Earth.

Professor Bridges said: “The most efficient approach for recovering freshly fallen meteorites is to observe their bright atmospheric entry via specialist camera and radio networks, like FRIPON.

“Such networks make it possible to accurately calculate meteorites’ trajectories which enables us to not only determine their pre-atmospheric orbit but also their fall location.”

FRIPON was originally launched in France and now has bases in 13 countries, including the UK’s System for Capture of Asteroid and Meteorite Paths (SCAMP) network.

The SCAMP network consists of 14 cameras hosted by research institutions like Space Park Leicester, local astronomy societies and citizen-scientists across the UK. The Space Park Leicester camera also captured the Northern Lights, also know as aurora borealis, over Leicestershire on 10 May.

In February 2021, data from SCAMP cameras in Cardiff, Honiton and Manchester played an important role in the recovery of one of the UK’s most famous meteorites ­– the Winchcombe meteorite.

Scientists, including Professor Bridges, went on to analyse it and discovered it was a CM carbonaceous chondrite – a type of meteorite considered to be one of the oldest objects in the Solar System.

It is helping scientists to learn more about asteroids millions of kilometres away from Earth.

University of Leicester PhD student Niamh Topping
The Space Park Leicester camera captured the aurora borealis over Leicestershire