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Fireball network seeks observers

A network of people dedicated to watching the sky for a spectacular atmospheric event is seeking help from area residents, New Mexico State University physics professor R.J. Liefeld said.



New Mexico State University physics professor R. J. Liefeld stands by a video camera and mirror designed to record the sky over Las Cruces and the surrounding area in search of "fireballs," large meteorites that leave a fiery trail in the sky. (NMSU photo

Informally called the "fireball network," the group operates a network of video cameras located in the United States and Canada that are aimed at the sky 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to record the occurrence of "fireballs," large meteorites that create a fiery trail as they fly through Earth's atmosphere.

The group maintains cameras on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, near Woodinville, Wash., and near Albuquerque, said Richard Spalding, a senior engineer at Sandia National Laboratory who helped organize the network. Each network member is seeking information from people living in that area so it can pinpoint the time and place of the events, he said.

Since fall 1999, the NMSU physics department has hosted one of the network's cameras. With the help of senior physics major Chris Hoxworth, Liefeld set up and maintains the camera on the roof of Gardiner Hall on the NMSU campus.

The inexpensive video camera is suspended on a metal scaffold with its lens aimed at a hemispherical, convex mirror below it. Using this arrangement, the camera is capable of recording a 360-degree view of the sky from horizon to horizon. Connected to three video recorders whose eight-hour tapes turn on sequentially, it films the sky 24-hours a day, Liefeld said.

But the camera films in real time, he added, making it difficult and tedious to scan and review the tapes to detect interesting phenomena. Also, because the tapes are recycled every two weeks, phenomena that are not noted can be lost. This is why the networks is seeking input from local observers, he said.

"What we're hoping is that if people see a fireball tearing across the sky, they will note the time and place they saw it and the direction it was going, then call us with the information. With their report, we can pin down where we should look on the tapes and determine the time of sighting and the direction the fireball was going," he said.

Liefeld said in October 1997 a fireball did cross Las Cruces skies in full daylight, heading toward West Texas. Several people reported seeing it, but because they provided no information about the direction it was going, researchers were never able to find pieces of the meteorite.

Spalding said researchers at Sandia National Laboratory became interested in the fireballs when satellites observed them from space. They are especially interesting to scientists because not all meteorites create fireballs when they enter the atmosphere and because fireballs seem to occur only at certain geographic locations, he said.

Liefeld said researchers want to observe fireballs' trajectory through the sky and analyze pieces of the meteorites to determine from where in the universe they come and of what they are made.

Anyone wishing to report the sighting of a fireball in this area, can call Liefeld at (505) 646-2206.

Photo is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/liefeld.jpg.
For a print, call (505) 646-3221. CUTLINE: New Mexico State University physics professor R. J. Liefeld stands by a video camera and mirror designed to record the sky over Las Cruces and the surrounding area in search of "fireballs," large meteorites that leave a fiery trail in the sky. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

Jack King
Nov. 21, 2000