Hunting for a meteorite? Quick, grab your phone!

By Angus Chen | April 15, 2014 7:17 pm

Lisa Warren. The Sutter’s Mill meteorite, a daytime fireball, streaks across the California morning sky.

The June edition of Discover Magazine refers to the NASA Meteor Counter app, though this has been updated to the newer AMS Meteors App. Check it out to collect awesome data on meteors, fireballs, and meteorites. 

A fireball exploded over a parking lot shortly after daybreak in April of 2012, showering the area near Sutter’s Mill, the original site of the California Gold Rush, with new treasure. Meteorite hunters and scientists rushed to discover the first stones from the meteor, known as the Sutter’s Mill meteorite, in the parking lot of a local park. Though to be fair, planetary scientist Marc Fries of NASA technically found it first.

Most meteors are flares from bits of debris burning up against Earth’s atmosphere, and we see them as shooting stars. Fireballs, extremely bright meteors like Sutter’s Mill, blaze across the sky when rocks that might be fist sized or larger punch through the atmosphere. Occasionally fireballs will streak in bearing hotly sought prizes: meteorite falls – fragments from the original asteroid or meteoroid surviving the inferno of falling through the atmosphere. But actually finding the stones can be a challenge. Meteorites hardly ever leave a trail tailing them straight to their impact site or fall location, so scientists and hunters need to determine where a meteorite is going, its trajectory, before even knowing where to look.

 To find and gather data on meteorites, scientists have always relied heavily on the eyewitness reports of citizen scientists, a process slow and fraught with the faults of human memory. But Mike Hankey, the operations manager at the American Meteor Society (AMS), is changing that. Hankey is a web developer by trade, but he’s now using his technological wizardry to hunt for fallen stars. In 2010, Hankey created an enhanced web app where citizen scientists can record observations like their coordinates and the position of the meteor in the sky – information scientists and meteorite hunters need to find meteorites. The old ways of reporting are changing, Hankey says, “with technology, we can reinvent [meteor observing].”

Marc Fries says he loves these AMS reports, and he uses them regularly. When he’s looking for meteorite-dropping fireballs, Fries says, “I’ll periodically scroll through and look for ones that are promising.” In 2012, Hankey and Fries used the data to triangulate the position of the Sutter’s Mill meteorite. At best, Hankey says “we can triangulate a 2D trajectory to a couple of kilometers.” With the search narrowed, scientists begin scanning the area on Doppler radars, used to detect clouds and weather patterns, for clouds kicked up by meteorites at the time reported by citizen scientists and the place calculated by the trajectory. “Et voila, you find a meteorite… within 42 to 72 hours of a fall,” says Hankey.

It worked perfectly for Sutter’s Mill. Fries says that he “pulled out the eyewitness reports and looked at the radar data and there it was.” And the web app’s citizen science reports worked to find three other meteorites that year too. Now Hankey is ready to take the next step in opening up the sky to citizen science by mobilizing into iPhone and Android with a phone app just launched this month in the Apple store. The app is an evolution of both the AMS fireball reporting web app and an older meteor counting app designed by NASA. Hankey says the old apps were good, but they were missing “a lot of… everything.” NASA’s Meteor Counter could only capture the number of meteors and their brightness in a night. With a swipe, the new AMS Meteors app can now get the direction, frequency, and type of meteors, helping NASA further evaluate the relative risk meteroids can have to spacecraft.

And when it came to fireball reports, Hankey says people still had trouble with the elevation and velocity of a fireball when reporting on the AMS webpage. “You’re not going to know the difference between 45° and 60°. It’s a hard thing to judge. But the phone knows, you just have to point it into the sky,” Hankey says. “We’ll be able to get the elevation, azimuth, angles, longitude, latitude of the person – and all this stuff right off the phone device.” With a wave of the phone, the app increases the accuracy of every aspect of fireball reporting, making what Fries calls “the vagaries in people’s recollection” a thing of the past.

Fries says all this information can both help scientists trace a meteorite’s journey through space to its origin and more quickly to its location on Earth. Fresh meteorite falls are some of the most valuable and rarest windows into the solar system. Most meteorites are stumbled upon long after their fall and much of the evidence from their former lives have already weathered away, sometimes over hundreds of years and sometimes in just days. Meteorite scientist Peter Jenniskens of NASA recovered parts of the Sutter’s Mill meteorite only 48 hours after the fall, allowing the scientists to identify a mineral called oldhamite that had never been seen in meteorites before. If Jenniskens hadn’t arrived quick enough to rescue a few meteorites, heavy rains would have washed away any trace of the oldhamite at Sutter’s Mill.

Mike Hankey. A 17.7g fall from the Sutter’s Mill meteorite valued at $18,000. Hankey and Fries were able to take the witness reports from web version of the AMS Meteors app to locate the position of these meteorites.

Being able to find meteorites comes with other bonuses too. Meteorites fetch a hefty price on the rock market. Hankey says his group picked up a 17.7g meteorite at Sutter’s Mill which is valued at around $18,000. But Hankey and Fries both say it’s not about the bounty. And while Hankey says meteorite falls like Sutter’s Mill is “one of the most scientifically, like, amazing meteorites almost ever,” it’s not just about the science either. “It’s the whole adventure,” Hankey says. It’s the excitement.

Though Fries likes the hunt too, he really loves getting the chance to teach planetary science to the locals. “It’s absolutely wonderful,” Fries says. “The level of interest is astronomical. You get really excited and enthusiastic… It’s spectacular, one of the best science education opportunities there is.” Fries says when a meteor comes to people’s neighborhoods, “they want to know what that thing was.” They want to get their hands and eyes on it and, pretty soon, their phones too.

To get involved with the American Meteor Society, go to the SciStarter Portal for this project.


Citizen Science Salon

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Citizen Science Salon, brought to you by SciStarter, is where science enthusiasts can join forces with top researchers. We'll feature weekly collaborative, crowdsourced, and DIY research projects that relate to what you're reading about in Discover, so you can take science into your own hands. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

About Angus Chen

Angus Chen is the managing editor for the SciStarter Blog network which includes the Discover magazine "Citizen Science Salon" blog and the Public Library of Science's Cit Sci blog. And he's a freelance reporter and producer at WNYC Public Radio on "The Takeaway," where he covers general assignment news. You can also read his work with Science magazine. He was once a scientist studying geology and ecology, but now spends his days typing and scribbling and sketching furiously.


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