Science & Environment

Smartphone app to 'ID' fireballs

Fireball
Image caption The researchers want the public to help track fireballs as they enter the atmosphere

Researchers have designed a smartphone app that sends back information to users about their meteor sightings.

Called Fireballs in the Sky, it was developed by a team at Curtin University in Australia.

The app can return details on what created the fireball and where it came from in the Solar System.

Prof Phil Bland, who helped develop the app, said it could be used from anywhere in the world.

"If we get enough observations we can determine a trajectory and send that information back to you - for instance, you might get a message that the rock that made your fireball came from the outer asteroid belt, or that it was a chunk of a comet," he commented.

Users are asked to point at the sky where they think the fireball started and click on their phones. Then they are asked to do the same for where they think it ended.

Prof Bland told BBC News that the app used a phone's accelerometer, GPS, and compass to provide data of sufficient quality that it could be used to create a crowdsourced smartphone fireball network.

"Essentially, members of the public can help us track anything that's coming through the atmosphere," he said.

With enough observations the team can work out where the fireball came from and send that information back to users.

"Its wonderful to see one of these things; its even more amazing to know where the object that made your fireball came from in the Solar System," Prof Bland said.

The app was the brainchild of the Desert Fireball Network, a Curtin University project designed to track down meteorites as they fall to Earth, by capturing meteors and fireballs on camera.

The researchers have placed cameras in various remote locations throughout Australia. And capturing fireballs in images as they streak through the sky allows the team to calculate the orbit and origin of meteorites - and to determine where they have landed.

Researchers did similar analysis to track the origins of the Chelyabinsk asteroid that broke up over Central Russia earlier this year.

"Australia is a really great country for meteorite searching because it is flat and there's not much vegetation or grass around, making it easy to see a small black rock on the ground," Prof Bland, who leads the Desert Fireball Network, explained.

The free app was produced in collaboration with the software company ThoughtWorks and Curtin Geoscience Outreach.

Paul.Rincon-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter