Catch a falling star in France’s skies

It was a bright fireball in the sky that lasted only seconds but a network of cameras caught the flash.

29 January 2020
By Connexion journalist

That allowed French and Italian scientists to pinpoint where a meteorite landed and help discover its origins.

The nut-sized space rock found by a man walking his dog near Modena in northern Italy in January was the first time researchers had computed a landing zone and locals found a meteorite after pleas for help.

Weighing 55g, the chondrite stony fragment is one of the more common meteorite types but is special as it is an object the same age as the Earth.

More importantly, it was a first success for the 100 cameras across France in the Fripon/Vigie-Ciel network and the 50 cameras in Italy’s Prisma network set up to track meteors.

Stargazers may often see shooting stars but these are specks of dust that burn up nearly instantly. Larger meteors, or bolides, can survive long enough to hit the ground... and, if found, are called meteorites.

Eight Italian cameras caught the fireball and their film let researchers estimate it weighed 8kg when it hit the atmosphere at very high speed, causing a 20,000C plasma gas that all but destroyed it.

Dr Brigitte Zanda, of MNHN and scientific leader of the Vigie-Ciel project, said: “It is an ordinary meteorite but interesting as its orbit tells us it is from an asteroid break-up. Once we have others, we can track certain orbits to certain asteroid types.

“Analysis of cosmogenic isotopes in the rock should help estimate its pre-atmospheric size separate of the film estimate, which has not been done before.

“Since the giant Chelyabinsk meteorite over Russia in 2013, there has been much more interest and we hope people will help us find fragments that fall.

“About five fall on France a year but only once in 10 years is one found. In the 19th century it was every two years. We hope to inspire people with Vigie-ciel to look at the skies and help us.”   

The Italian finder donated his chondrite to Florence museum but finds can be worth money, although it is hard to quantify as it depends on type and rarity.

Their value to science is huge as chondrites may contain microscopic pre-solar grains so old they were formed before our solar system and may hold secrets of the origins of stars.

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