Oh, yes. Nature tries to downplay it, but it’s the French who have launched an unprecedented meteor-spotting network to scan the skies:
By the end of this year, some 100 cameras will blanket France, organizers say. That would make it one of the biggest and densest meteor-spotting networks in the world.
“If tomorrow a meteorite falls in France, we will be able to know where it comes from and roughly where it has landed,” says Jérémie Vaubaillon, an astronomer at the Paris Observatory and one of organizers of the system. Dubbed the Fireball Recovery and InterPlanetary Observation Network, or FRIPON, it was officially inaugurated on 28 May.
Meteorites — chunks of stone that have fallen from space and reached Earth’s surface — provide valuable insights into everything from the history of the Solar System to the identity of asteroids that could potentially collide with Earth. Snagging such objects is “the one chance you get to see Solar System material in your hands”, says David Clark, who studies meteors at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. “We simply don’t have enough of this stuff.”
The French network’s cameras are very densely and evenly spaced, sitting roughly 70–80 kilometres apart at laboratories, science museums and other buildings. That is close enough together to yield good information about where meteorites land. “That increases your chance of finding something,” says Jenniskens.
FRIPON is also the first fully connected and automated network, says principal investigator François Colas, of the Paris Observatory. When a camera detects a meteor, it sends a message to a central computer in Paris. If two or more cameras spot the fireball, FRIPON scientists receive an e-mail describing where it was seen. Eventually, the e-mail will include automatically generated information about the object’s probable landing zone, pinpointing it to an area roughly 1 kilometres by 10 kilometres.
The researchers will then face the arduous job of searching this area to find the object. At first, scientists will conduct the ground searches. But in the next few years, FRIPON organizers plan to train an army of citizen scientists to walk the French landscape looking for bits of meteorite — and to hand over any finds.