Discovering a 17-pound meteorite in Antarctica


Discovering a 17-pound meteorite in Antarctica

The researchers with their discovery of 16.7 lbs. The White Helmet: Maria Schönbachler. Green Helmet: Maria Valdes. Black Helmet: Ryuga Maeda. Orange Helmet: Vincent Depay. Photo provided by Maria Valdes. Credit: Maria Valdes

Antarctica is a tough place to work, for obvious reasons — it’s frigid, remote, and wild. However, it is one of the best places in the world to look for meteorites. This is partly because Antarctica is a desert, and its dry climate limits the degree of meteorites’ weatherability. On top of the dry conditions, the landscape is ideal for meteorite hunting: black space rocks stand out clearly against the snowy fields. Even as meteorites sink into the ice, the movement of glaciers rippling against the rocks below helps re-expose meteorites near the surface of the continent’s blue ice fields.

An international team of researchers just back from Antarctica can attest to the ease with which meteorites have been on the continent: They brought back five new meteorites, including one that weighed 16.7 pounds (7.6 kg).

Discovering a 17-pound meteorite in Antarctica

The meteorite is 17 lbs. Credit: Maria Valdes

Maria Valdez, a research scientist at the Field Museum and the University of Chicago, estimates that of the approximately 45,000 meteorites recovered from Antarctica over the past century, there are about a hundred or so of this size or larger. “Size doesn’t necessarily matter when it comes to meteorites,” says Valdez, “and even small micrometeorites can be incredibly valuable scientifically, but of course, finding a large meteorite like this is really rare and exciting.”

Valdés was one of four scientists on the mission, led by Vincien Debaile of the Free University of Brussels (FNRS-ULB); The research team was rounded out by Maria Schönbächler (ETH-Zurich) and Ryoga Maeda (VUB-ULB). The researchers were the first to discover a new potential meteor Sites set using satellite images By Veronica Tollenaar, Dissertation Student in Glaciology at ULB.

  • Discovering a 17-pound meteorite in Antarctica

    Boulders are scattered across an ice field, as scientists search for meteorites in the background. Credit: Maria Valdes

  • Discovering a 17-pound meteorite in Antarctica

    Team tents in the field. Credit: Maria Valdes

  • Discovering a 17-pound meteorite in Antarctica

    The team hikes through rock formations in Antarctica. Credit: Maria Valdes

  • Discovering a 17-pound meteorite in Antarctica

    Snow field in Antarctica. Credit: Maria Valdes

“Going on an adventure to explore unknown regions is exciting,” says Debayle, “but we also had to deal with the fact that the reality on the ground is much more difficult than the beauty of satellite imagery.” Despite timing their trip for the Antarctic summer in late December, temperatures hovered around 14 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 degrees Celsius). Some days during their trip, Valdez notes, it was actually much colder in Chicago than it was in Antarctica, but days spent riding snowmobiles, trekking through ice fields and then sleeping in a tent made Antarctic weather even more extreme.

The five meteorites recovered by the team will be analyzed at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences; Meanwhile, deposits potentially containing micrometeorites have been divided up for researchers to study at their institutions.

Valdez says she’s excited to see what analyzes of meteorites reveal, because “studying meteorites helps us better understand our place in the universe. The larger our sample size of meteorites, the better we can understand our solar system, and the better we can understand ourselves.”

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