The Desert Fireball Network (DFN) is a project designed to discover more about the early solar system through fireballs and newly fallen meteorites. The DFN consists of 32 (and counting!) autonomous digital skyward facing cameras across desert areas of Australia.
The DFN is a collaborative effort between Imperial College, London, Ondrejov Observatory in the Czech Republic, Curtin University in Western Australia and the Western Australian Museum. The DFN team involves specialists from multiple disciplines including geologists, planetary scientists, astrophysicists, petrologists, mineralogists, mechatronic engineers, software engineers and science communicators.
The DFN cameras capture pictures of meteors as they fall. Purpose-designed hardware and software allow calculations of the speed, direction, potential landing zone of the meteorite as well as the original orbit of the meteoroid and possibly the parent body from which it came.
After recovering and analysing the fallen meteorite it will be possible to determine its composition, and by extension, the composition of the parent body. Using the DFN, scientists can find out valuable information about meteorites and their origins within the solar system.
In July 2007, the DFN tracked and located its first meteorite. Using precise measurements obtained from the DFN cameras it was possible to triangulate and successfully recover the meteorite. The Bunburra Rockhole meteorite, as it came to be known, is an achondritic eucrite which was originally in a strange orbit that carried it between Venus and Earth.
Over the last three years, the DFN has photographed and recovered a second meteorite, Mason Gully, while building the digital camera network and improving its audtonomous functions. In December 2015 a third meteorite, (yet to be officially named) was recovered in Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre South. More than 300 fireball events have been recorded with suffificent detail to extrapolate their orbit from space.
Other fireball networks
The establishment of a dedicated sky survey facility has been attempted in other countries over the last 50 years. However, most attempts have met with limited success because of the use of clunky and out of date camera equipment, and poor recovery environments such as heavily forested areas or hilly terrain. This makes it difficult to maintain a network in an environment where recovery is almost impossible.
The Australian Desert Fireball Network aims to utilise the unique environment of the Australian outback which makes it easier for researchers to photograph and recover meteorites. The DFN is set up in the Nullarbor Desert and surrounds where the sky is clear almost all year round, and the ground is flat, white limestone.
The Nullarbor is an ideal location for the DFN because there is little human or animal activity to disturb the meteorites and the pale white landscape makes it easy to spot the darker meteorites once they have landed. These unique conditions make tracking and recovery much easier.
The Nullarbor is extremely hot and dry, but modern technology makes it possible for the cameras to survive in the harsh Australian outback. The cameras use an assortment of 3D printed parts to streamline the production process and reduce costs. To protect against extreme weather the cameras are housed within a waterproof container with an inbuilt fan cooling system to protect the camera during the day.
The DFN aims to expand throughout the Australian outback in the hopes of monitoring one third of the Australian night sky.