Meteorites on Ice

Meteorite collection in Antarctica (Image: NASA)

Left: map of Antarctica, where the highlighted area is blown up in a big map showing Transantarctic Mountain range and the ice fields where meteorites have been found. Image: NASA. Right: Sketch showing how meteorites falling on the ice get transported and concentrated next to mountain ranges. Image: NASA.

Although not exactly Moon focused, I hope that this story is of interest to Moon Zoo Forum members as this is the way many lunar meteorites are found here on Earth (see previous Moon Zoo blog ).This past winter (2011-2012) I was lucky enough to join the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) team to hunt for meteorites in Antarctica. The ANSMET programme, funded by NASA and the US National Science Foundation and run between Case Western Reserve University, NASA JSC and the Smithsonian, has been running since 1976 exploring the ice of Antarctica for meteorites. So far about 20,000 meteorites have been collected and made available to the scientific community to study to understand planetary processes. Most of these meteorites originate from the asteroid belt, but some very rare ones have come from Mars and the Moon.Why Antarctica? The team collects meteorites in Antarctica because they are well preserved in the cold dry icy environment. They are also easy to spot as dark rocks on the white ice. Most meteorites are found in icefields close to the Transantarctic Mountain range – you can see a map where all the yellow labels mark places that meteorites have been collected. These localities are really great for concentrating lots meteorites that have travelled from the South Pole ice plateau, and are brought up to the ice sheet surface near mountain ranges

Arriving and life on the ice: Images: Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program / Katie Joy.

Arriving and life on the ice: Images: Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program / Katie Joy.

How do we get to Antarctica and what is life like on the ice? Our team of six guys and two girls flew to Christchurch, New Zealand, and then were flown down to the US McMurdo base in Antarctica. We spent a week or so in McMurdo preparing for our expedition. We packed up our gear and selected food supplies to last us for six weeks camping on the ice. When we were trained and prepared we flewout to the Transantarctic Mountains on a military Hercules plane with skis and then a smaller Twin Otter plane. We set up camp in the Miller Range – a stunning area with mountains and glaciers. Our camp consisted of four tents, where we lived two people to a tent, and a tent with a toilet (a glamorous bucket!) and one that we used to all gather in the evenings (the party tent). Temperatures varied from about -10°C down to -30°C outside, but when the wind was blowing from the South Pole plateau, it felt a lot colder! You have to wrap up in many layers to stay warm – I typically wore four layers on my legs and between five and seven on top, including my big orange down jacket. I also wore a full face mask to protect my face and eyes from the cold and glare from the sun.

Collecting meteorites on the ice (the meteorite are the brown/black rocks we are all gathered around!): Images: Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program / Katie Joy.

Collecting meteorites on the ice (the meteorite are the brown/black rocks we are all gathered around!): Images: Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program / Katie Joy.

How does meteorite hunting work? We had a surprisingly large amount of snow during our field season – which is rather unusual for Antarctica as it is supposed to be a cold dry desert. The snow caused us lots of problems trying to find the meteorites, so we spent a lot of time stuck in our tents rather than looking for meteorites. When the weather was good enough to allow us to look we would get on our snowmobiles (skidoos) and drive out to a new area of ice. We lined up and drove up and down in straight line formation with about ten metres between each team member. When someone spotted a black rock on the ice they would jump off their skidoo, check it was a meteorite, and then wave their arms madly in the air to call the other people over to come and help collect it. We photographed the meteorite, logged its location and carefully put it into a special collection bag ready to send back to NASA. Sometimes we would walk across the ice to search, and other times we would look in rocky areas called moraines to see if we could spot a meteorite. It was a frustrating process when you didn’t find a meteorite, but great fun and satisfying when you did. Our team found 302 stones this year, which considering the bad weather, wasn’t a bad total at all. In fact we were lucky enough to collect the 20,000th sample ANSMET have collected, which was cause for a big celebration.

The samples are all now back at NASA Johnson Space Center ready to be classified and studied by scientists all over the world. Initial identification of the meteorites was recently announced at http://curator.jsc.nasa.gov/antmet/amn/amn.cfm#352 and the meteorites our team collected have been given the name Miller Range 11XXX as they were collected in the 2011 ANSMET season. So far (the curation staff are still working hard to classify all the samples!) it doesn’t look like we found any lunars or martian meteorites this year, but did find a large Howardite and several Diogenite meteorites, which may have originated from the asteroid Vesta.

ANSMET will be taking place this year, the team sets off to the ice at the beginning of December 2012, and you can follow the blog charting the expedition via http://geology.cwru.edu/~ansmet/

More information about the ANSMET programme can be found at http://curator.jsc.nasa.gov/antmet/program.cfm and http://geology.cwru.edu/~ansmet/

This is modified from a blog that first appeared on http://earthandsolarsystem.wordpress.com/2012/07/30/meteorites-on-ice/

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About Katherine Joy

Hello! I am Katherine Joy. I am part of the University of Manchester Isotope Geochemistry and Cosmochemistry group. More details about my research interests can be found at http://www.seaes.manchester.ac.uk/people/staff/profile/?ea=katherine.joy

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