Leicester scientists scouring skies for falling fireballs

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.

FRIPON Optical Camera at Space Park Leicester

University of Leicester PhD student Niamh Topping (pictured above) 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.”

Professor John Bridges

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.

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.”

Space Park Leicester SCAMP camera image

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.

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.

For further information about FRIPON, visit: https://www.fripon.org or to find out about the UK Fireball Alliance, visit https://ukfall.org.uk

For more information about Space Park Leicester, visit https://www.space-park.co.uk/ or to learn about the University of Leicester, visit https://le.ac.uk/about

About the University of Leicester

The University of Leicester is led by discovery and innovation – an international centre for excellence renowned for research, teaching and broadening access to higher education. It is among the top 25 universities in the Times Higher Education REF Research Power rankings with 75% of research adjudged to be internationally excellent with wide-ranging impacts on society, health, culture, and the environment. The University is home to just over 20,000 students and approximately 4,000 staff. Find out more: https://le.ac.uk/about

About Space Park Leicester

Space Park Leicester is a project led by the University of Leicester in partnership with Leicester City Council and the Leicester and Leicestershire Enterprise Partnership (LLEP).

A world-leading cluster for innovative research, enterprise and education in space and Earth observation, Space Park Leicester represents a collaborative community for industry and academia to develop and grow.

Opened in Spring 2022, Space Park Leicester provides state-of-the-art facilities for research, development, and manufacturing. It houses capabilities and companies covering an end-to-end capability, from satellite design and engineering, through to downstream data and its applications. This creates unmatched opportunities for collaboration.

Follow us at @SpaceParkLeic #SpaceParkLeicester #AdvancingThroughSpace

Find out more and keep up with the latest developments online at  www.space-park.co.uk


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