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Stargazers Help Track Down a Freshly Fallen Meteorite in Western Australia

A network of cameras and smartphone apps are helping Australian researchers hunt for space rocks

The meteorite sample recovered near Perth in western Australia. (Desert Fireball Network)
smithsonian.com

Given a clear night and enough time, watching shooting stars streak across the sky isn’t too much of a challenge. But tracking down meteorite fragments that may have survived their entry into the Earth’s atmosphere is a different story. Now, thanks to a network of cameras in Australia’s desert and reports from helpful stargazers, a group of researchers has recovered a freshly-fallen meteorite just a week after it landed.

Studying meteorites is one of the best ways to learn new details about the objects speeding through our solar system, but getting one in good condition can be difficult. Most disintegrate during entry, and the ones that do make it to the ground are subjected to the elements—rain can readily dissolve and weather away parts of the space rock, Colin Cosier reports for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. While researchers can use observatories and cameras to track these falling rocks, the more eyes on the sky mean a faster recovery time.

To track this particular meteorite to its landing point, astronomers from Curtin University’s Desert Fireball Network turned to a combination of astronomical cameras and eyewitness reports to quickly track it. About a week later, they found it lying in a field on a farm northeast of Perth in western Australia, the Australian Associated Press reports—the quickest recovery effort the team has yet had.

"You do all this stuff and then it essentially comes down to a treasure hunt. It's often a bit scary because you want to prove everything works,” Phil Bland, a planetary scientist from Curtin University, tells Cayla Dengate for Huffington Post – Australia. "Often they land in dense bush but this time it was farm land so it was easy."

Thanks to images from cameras and reports from people who watched the fireball streak through the sky on Halloween night, Bland and his colleagues managed to recover the brick-sized meteorite and store it safely. While the rock is only a fragment of the original, which may have been 50 to 100 times larger than its current size, Bland says it is in excellent condition for study, according to the Australian Associated Press.

The meteorite belongs in a class of space rocks known as chondrites, Bland tells Cosier. This means that it "has not been cooked up enough to melt," he says. "We're hopeful, because we managed to get it in a very pristine way, that we can find some quite soluble elements or minerals in there, or volatile minerals that can tell us about water and organics in the solar system."

With any luck, the remnants of this shooting star could contain new details about this history of our cosmic neighborhood.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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