In addition to specializing in the popularization of astronomy and the dissemination of science to the public, the Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan has developed research and collection focuses. Meteorites are the Planétarium's flagship collection. Created with more than 458 fragments from 200 different meteorites, the Planétarium's meteorite collection is the largest in Québec. Two pieces from our collection are unique in the world: the Penouille and Chibougamau meteorites, which were found right here in Québec. Other significant specimens come from the Moon or Mars, while others have marked the history of meteoric science.
The Planétarium's meteorite collection is used for museology, education and research. It is important to emphasize that the Planétarium is the only museum in Québec whose meteorites constitute the main collection theme.
What is a meteorite?
Since it is not possible to collect and keep planets, stars or other celestial bodies in museum reserves, the Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan has decided to focus on the only collectible extraterrestrial natural objects: meteorites.
A meteorite is a rocky body from space that survived its passage through the Earth's atmosphere and fell to the ground.
The small number of known meteorites, their scientific interest and the market value acquired in the last 30 years by a fraction of them give the meteorite collection a unique character when compared to other collections in natural history museums. In fact, it is both a heritage used for the dissemination of knowledge and the irreplaceable support for research by an entire national and international scientific community.
The public has free access at all times to the meteorites that are presented in the permanent exhibition. The most beautiful pieces are on display to the public, but all 458 pieces in the collection will be showcased on the Space for Life site, accessible to all, in 2022.
The Penouille metallic meteorite was found by an 11-year-old boy in the summer of 1984 during a family vacation in Gaspésie. The magnetism and density of the stone raised the interest of the young collector. Meteorites found at random without their fall being observed are most often metallic. The surface of these objects is very different from that of Earth's rocks.
Christian Couture kept the meteorite for ten years. He then decided to have it analyzed following the hype surrounding the fall of the Saint-Robert meteorite. In 1994, he went to the Montréal Planétarium to get an opinion and find out what to do next. Astronomers quickly identified it as a meteorite and it was sent to the Geological Survey of Canada for a full analysis. The 21-year-old then sold his meteorite to the Montréal Planétarium.
The Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan is the only museum in the world to have this Québec meteorite in its possession.
The Planétarium was particularly interested in falling meteorites (as opposed to serendipity) because these are pieces for which there is more documentation and anecdotes. For visitors, they represent more evocative specimens.
The Planétarium also collects tectites, which are glass fragments of earth material that have been melted by giant meteorite impact. Meteorites represent the core of the collection, and 40 tectites are added to it.
Why detect falling meteorites?
The last meteorite fall observed in Québec occurred 25 years ago, in June 1994. The dive of the Saint-Robert meteorite (specimen above) into the Earth's atmosphere had caused great noise in Montréal and Montérégie. However, experts estimate that there are about ten meteorites that fall on Québec soil each year. Unfortunately, the size of the territory and the few eyewitnesses make it difficult to adequately observe these falls and especially to find fragments. Most of the meteorites falling in Québec are lost forever!
To rectify this problem, the Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan recently joined the FRIPON, DOMe project in Québec.
What is DOMe (FRIPON)?
DOMe is the acronym for Detection and Observation of Meteors. It is the Canadian counterpart of the FRIPON network. FRIPON means Fireball Recovery and InterPlanetary Observation Network. Behind this curious acronym hides a very serious program (www.fripon.org), whose main goal is to find a maximum of meteorites. It consists of a network of “fish-eye” type cameras that allow a 360-degree sky surveillance, at night of course, but possibly also during the day.
Developed in France by a consortium of observatories, university laboratories and natural science museums, and thanks to funding from the Agence nationale de la recherche (ANR), the FRIPON/DOMe project already has more than 100 stations covering the entire French territory and part of its neighboring countries.
The automated cameras of these stations detect fireballs (exceptionally bright meteors) that enter the Earth’s atmosphere, calculate their trajectory and determine the drop zone of potential meteorites. If necessary, research teams are deployed in the field in order to recover as many fragments as possible: this is the community science or participative science component of the FRIPON/DOMe project. In France, this aspect is supervised by the Vigie-Ciel program Vigie-Ciel.
Why bring DOMe to Canada?
Thanks to the Space for Life Foundation's financial support, the Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan is currently working to set up a network of DOMe stations in Canada. It will initially consist of 13 cameras covering southern Québec and the St. Lawrence plain. Through this project, we want to:
- discover on a more regular basis (and eventually systematically) meteorites falling in Québec;
- enrich the Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan's meteorite collection with rare and unaltered samples (the conservation of this heritage for future generations and future research is essential);
- constrain the Solar System's regions where the different classes of meteorites come from (dynamic evolution of the Solar System, migration patterns of planets, link between meteorites and asteroids, etc.);
- and, finally, practice participatory science by involving and communicating with the public, through a local adaptation of the Vigie-Ciel program.
How are the DOMe stations distributed?
DOMe stations are not randomly positioned. Their location is very important: it follows a triangular mesh of about 100 kilometers on each side. This allows us to determine, by triangulation, the trajectory of meteors that enter the Earth's atmosphere above our regions. For triangulation to work optimally, the distance between two neighboring stations must be more than 65 km, without however exceeding 120 km.
What does a DOMe station consist of?
Each station in the DOMe network has a camera fitted with a "fish-eye" lens, which allows to see the entire sky over 360 degrees; it consists of a small video surveillance camera inserted in a waterproof cylindrical case closed by a transparent dome. It is the only component that is installed outdoors and exposed to severe weather.
An ultra-compact computer, without a screen, keyboard or mouse, controls all of the station's operations. A software continuously analyzes the images provided by the camera and detects potential meteors. If detected, the computer communicates, via Internet, the relevant data to servers on the DOMe network.
A small network switch serves as an interconnect for the various Ethernet cables connected to the camera, the computer and the Internet. The switch also provides power to the camera through its Ethernet cable (PoE protocol, or Power over Ethernet).
All of these, along with the power supplies and hardware needed to securely mount the camera, are provided by the Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan.
The meteorites research team and DOMe project at the Planétarium
- Olivier Hernandez, Ph.D., Director, Astrophysicist
- Marc Jobin, M.Sc., Astronomer
- André Grandchamps, M.Sc., Astronomer
- Mathieu Forcier, Technician