Meteorite-Hunting Drones Could Uncover Solar System's Mysteries

Researchers have used drones and artificial intelligence (AI) to pinpoint a freshly fallen meteorite in the vast Nullarbor Plain of Western Australia.

The new method of meteorite locating pioneered by a team from Curtin University could vastly increase the number of space rocks that can be tracked and collected, especially if they are observed as they plummet through the atmosphere.

As many of these rocks come from asteroids, unspoiled material left over from the formation of the solar system over 4.6 billion years ago, their study could reveal the building blocks of planets like ours.

The study of meteorites can also reveal the age and composition of different planetary building blocks, the temperatures reached at the surfaces and within the interiors of asteroids, and the degree to which materials were altered by impacts in the past, NASA says.

Graduate student Seamus Anderson from Curtin's Space Science and Technology Centre (SSTC) was the lead researcher on the project, which is the first to use a drone to collect footage of a landscape and then AI to scan this footage.

He said in a press release from the university: "A camera-fitted drone flies over and collects images of the fall zone, which are transferred to our field computer where an algorithm scans each image for meteorites and features that resemble them.

"Although our algorithm was 'trained' on data collected from past meteorite searches, we brought with us previously recovered meteorites and imaged them on the ground at the fall site, to create local data with which to further train the algorithm."

The team's research is published in the online paper repository ArXiv.

Anderson said that meteorite searches usually involve a group of people covering large predicted impact areas on foot. This new method requires only about one-tenth the amount of labor and time.

While most space rocks that enter Earth's atmosphere break apart while traveling at tens of thousands of miles per hour NASA estimates that around 5 percent of these objects make it to the ground, with sizes ranging from a pebble to a fist.

Each year it's estimated that about 500 meteorites survive this journey through Earth's atmosphere and strike Earth's surface. Less than 2 percent of these are ever recovered.

Often appearing as a typical Earth rock, but with a burnt or shiny exterior, meteorites can often be difficult to distinguish. And though this is easier against the sandy backdrops of deserts, the vastness of these regions and the inhospitable environments still make these searches grueling.

Anderson said the new method also has a much higher likely success rate. The team located and recovered the meteorite within four days of being on-site at Kybo Station, a homestead in Western Australia.

The SSTC researcher said that in addition to increasing our understanding of the solar system, the study of meteorites is useful for other reasons: "Meteorites often contain a higher concentration of rare and valuable elements such as cobalt, which is crucial to the construction of modern batteries.

"Also, by gaining a better understanding of how extra-terrestrial material is distributed throughout the solar system, we may one-day mine asteroids for precious resources, instead of scrounging for the finite amounts of them on Earth and perhaps harming precious ecosystems in the process."

And beyond the search for meteorites, the system devised and tested by the team could have wealth of other uses. "Other potential applications for our new approach using drones and artificial intelligence include wildlife management and conservation, as our model could be easily retrained to detect objects other than meteorites, such as plants and animals," he said.

A stock image shows a Meteorite streaking through Earth's atmosphere at thousands of mile per hour. Researchers in Austrailia have used a powerful combination of AI and drones to search for space rocks, a method that could increase our knowledge of the building blocks of the solar system. Bjorn Bakstad/GETTY