Meteorite falls are extremely rare. When one happens, looking for these celestial stones on the ground is very difficult. It was with the aim of making those searches easier that Montréal's Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan set up the project DOMe (Detection and Observation of Meteors).
Why are we interested in meteorites?
Meteorites are rocky bodies from outer space that have survived their passage through the Earth's atmosphere and fallen to the ground. Meteorites are the only extraterrestrial objects that astronomers can analyze directly. That rarity makes them even more valuable.
It was on the basis of meteorites that the planets in the solar system were formed. The study of meteorites therefore leads to a better understanding of the processes of planet formation. It also serves to deepen our knowledge of the mechanisms that gave rise to the appearance and development of life on Earth.
In 2016, French astronomers developed a network of surveillance cameras to facilitate detection of, and search for, meteorite falls on the ground. Bearing the name FRIPON, an acronym of Fireball Recovery and InterPlanetary Observation Network, the project later expanded to a number of countries. There are now over 200 cameras in the world, most of them located in Europe.
The DOMe project
The last meteorite fall in Québec took place more than 25 years ago at Saint-Robert, near Sorel. Specialists estimate that probably several meteorites fall to the ground in Québec each year. Unfortunately, the size of the territory and minimal eyewitnesses mean that it's difficult to properly observe these falls and to recover valuable fragments. Thus, the great majority of the meteorites falling in Québec are lost forever.
It was to fix this problem that the Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan joined the FRIPON project by creating a Québec version: project DOMe.
For the time being we've installed cameras in the St. Lawrence plain and in southern Québec. These areas, being for the most part rural, will make searching easier.
Looking for meteorites on the ground
Each station in the network has a camera with a fisheye lens that allows for 360-degree surveillance of the sky. The data collected are transmitted to the central server, which is located in Marseilles, France.
Meteors begin to light up at an altitude of roughly 100 kilometers. Thus, to make the most of the network, cameras are installed about 100 kilometers apart.
When at least three cameras identify the same fireball, the Marseilles computer calculates the trajectory of the incoming meteorite. At that point the meteorite's origin can be determined, and its speed can be estimated along with its braking rate in the Earth's atmosphere. Finally, mathematical models make it possible to determine a fall zone, if applicable. It's at that point that we can deploy teams on the ground and begin searching.
Searching in the field requires teams of volunteers to maximize the chances of finding meteorite fragments. Training is available to people who wish to participate in searches and be part of teams that will be working on the ground. We invite you to consult the Space for Life website in the coming weeks for how to register.
A treasure for future generations
We hope to enrich the Planétarium's meteorite collection with rare, uncorrupted samples thanks to the DOMe project. Our meteorite collection incidentally is the most important collection in Québec and the third most in Canada! Conservation of this celestial heritage is essential for scientific research and for future generations.
Discover the exhibition Spotlight on our meteorites!, presented at the Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan