SCAMP – Finding newly-fallen meteorites

SCAMP (the System for Capture of Asteroid and Meteorite Paths) is a network of all-sky digital cameras based in the UK and Ireland

The cameras help us to recover freshly-fallen meteorites and to calculate exactly where they came from. It allows us to sample the solar system without leaving Earth.

The SCAMP Network

SCAMP’s existing camera locations are shown below. As SCAMP is part of the French FRIPON network, some of FRIPON’s European cameras are also shown. They will record many of the same fireballs that SCAMP detects, and so will help us find meteorites that land in the UK or Ireland.

As well as recording fireball events, each camera captures an image every ten minutes. You can view that latest image by clicking on the  red or blue map points below and then on the camera name, e.g. Cardiff or EastBarnet.

The SCAMP network is fully operational. However, it will eventually have ten times as many cameras as it does now. The planned UK and Irish network will look something like the map below, where target sites are shown in grey (zoom in to see more detail).

How does it work, and why so many cameras?

Fireballs glow about 100km above us when fast-moving pieces of rock or dust hit Earth’s atmosphere. Two cameras about 100km apart let us calculate the fireball’s path, and so what its orbit must have been before it hit the Earth’s atmosphere. If three or four cameras capture the fireball then the calculation can be very accurate, even allowing for clouds or bad visibility. To cover the UK and Ireland with cameras about 100km apart, we need about 72 cameras. In the UK on average we should see several meteorites landing every year, and having a comprehensive camera network will help us find them.

Image credit: FRIPON www.fripon.org

Triangulation with three or four cameras works well for the first few seconds when the fireball glows brightly in the upper atmosphere. However, once the meteoroid reaches the thicker lower atmosphere (but still well above where planes fly) it slows down quickly and stops glowing. It’s then in freefall for a few minutes (yes, minutes not seconds) and is blown about by the wind as it falls. FRIPON has a mathematical model of this “Dark Flight” phase that uses current wind conditions at different altitudes to predict where meteorites of different sizes and shapes might land.

What calculations does FRIPON do?

FRIPON/SCAMP cameras take 30 frames of video per second, each frame like the one below from the Canterbury camera.

The camera’s fish-eye lens captures the whole sky, which is why the image is circular. When the system detects movement, it saves the stack of frames taken during that period and works out the path of the object across the background of stars. By comparing the paths calculated by two, three or more cameras, a trajectory for the object can be calculated. Here’s an example of a long, flat trajectory calculated by FRIPON. This particular meteorite was calculated to have landed in the ocean in September 2019.

Calculating meteor trajectory

After the calculations, what then?

If it looks as though a meteorite has dropped in the UK or Ireland, we’ll go looking for it. In Great Britain the UK Fireball Alliance (UKFall, www.ukfall.org.uk) will put together a search team very quickly and try to find the meteorite before it gets too altered by rain or dirt. A similar group is being formed for meteorite recovery on the island of Ireland. Any meteorites recovered using SCAMP will be donated to the UK Natural History Museum or other UK or Irish museums or universities, along with all images and data recorded.

Hosting your own SCAMP Camera

Individuals or institutions are very welcome to join the SCAMP network. You’ll need to buy your own camera system which we can source for you for about £1,750. Please contact us at ukmeteornetwork@gmail.com.

SCAMP cameras run unattended and need very little intervention. The camera has a web interface so its images and calculations can be seen from any computer.

Sign up for occasional e-mail updates

Every couple of months we send out a brief update on developments in the SCAMP network. Please sign up here. We won’t provide your e-mail address to third parties.

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FAQ 1 - What’s the difference between SCAMP, FRIPON and UKMON?

UKMON uses very sensitive cameras that capture very faint meteors at night, whereas SCAMP/FRIPON only detects very bright meteors and will eventually operate during the day as well.

The FRIPON network of more than 100 all-sky digital cameras launched in France in 2016. SCAMP is the implementation of the FRIPON network in the UK and Ireland. To learn more about FRIPON, go to www.fripon.org.

FAQ 2 - A guide to meteor terminology

In meteor science there are lots of words for the same thing. To help you navigate your way through it, let’s start from when the rock is still in space, follow it through the atmosphere and end when it’s on the ground.

  • While travelling through space, the object is an asteroid, a fragment of an asteroid, a fragment of comet, dust, or similar – there is no single name.
  • Once it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, the object itself is called a meteoroid. The glow that we see from the ground is called a meteor. Meteoroid is sometimes also used to describe the object before it hits the atmosphere, because (as noted above) there isn’t another suitable and general name.
  • If the meteor is very bright or shows fragmentation then astronomers will often call it a fireball or a bolide. If you’re familiar with star magnitude numbering in astronomy, then in theory a fireball is a meteor brighter than “-4” magnitude while a bolide is a fireball brighter than “-14” magnitude. That’s the theory, but in practice “fireball” and “bolide” tend to be used interchangeably by astronomers.
  • However, geologists use the term “bolide” differently, meaning “huge meteoroid that causes some interesting geology when it lands”. So geologists are talking about the arriving rock or impactor as a bolide, while astronomers are talking about the bright fireball as a bolide.
  • When it hits the ground, the object is then called a meteorite. The suffix “-ite” means “associated with” and so a meteorite is a rock associated with a meteor.