Fireballs in the Sky Tracks Meteors with your Smartphone

Use your smartphone to help scientists find pieces of asteroids and planets here on Earth. Fireballs in the Sky, an app for Android and iOS, lets people report large meteors streaking through the night sky. Scientists use the data to triangulate the meteor’s path and find meteorites that reach the ground.

Fireballs are the extremely bright meteors created by large meteoroids passing through the upper atmosphere. Unlike the flecks of dust that create most meteors, these largish rocks can survive the intense temperatures and pressures of their entry into Earth’s atmosphere and land on the surface. These meteorites (it’s a silly naming convention) give scientists insights into the structure of asteroids that they could only get with expensive sample return space missions. Some meteorites even come from other planets - the only samples of Mars planetary scientists have are meteorites.

The best places to look for meteorites are arid, featureless landscapes. The dry air preserves the meteorites while the empty landscape makes finding the meteorites easier. Antarctica is the best hunting ground for meteorites - there’s no competition from commercial meteorite collectors and no concerns about property rights. But missions to Antarctica are expensive and limited to the southern summer. The empty desert of Australia’s Nullarbor, however, makes a good second choice. Nullarbor, or “no tree”, is a desert region in the continent’s southwest. The dark meteorites stand out against the desert’s red sands. 

Professional meteorite researchers with the Curtin University of Technology, the Western Australia Museum, Imperial College London and the Czech Republic’s Ondřejov Observatory created the Desert Fireball Network in 2007. The automated network of cameras lets the scientists triangulate a meteor’s path and find the area where the meteorite might have fallen. Each camera station requires power and maintenance which requires money. You can read more about the project in peer-reviewed papers published in Astronomy and Geophysics (free access) and the Australian Journal of Earth Sciences (paywall or see the free preprint). The scientists at the Desert Fireball Network think amateurs can help increase the number of meteors they track - and the number of meteorites they find.

Fireballs in the Sky lets you send detailed reports of large meteors to the scientists at the Desert Fireball Network. Available for both iOS and Android smart phones, the app lets you specify the meteor’s path, shape, brightness, and color. The project combines the amateur observations with the Fireball Network’s data to confirm the meteor’s path and help find the fallen meteorite. You can use the app to follow the Fireball Network’s progress and learn more about the meteors it tracks. While the project focuses on meteors over Australia, the scientists make the data available to scientists around the world. It already has partnerships with researchers in the United States and the Czech Republic.

The app has a 4.4-star rating on the Google Play Store and many enthusiastic reviews. It’s rated 2-stars at the iTunes Store, but that is based on only six ratings. The three reviews span the full 1-star to 5-star range.