An intrepid team of scientists endured the inhospitable conditions of the frozen Antarctic desert to recover five new meteorites, including a monster space rock weighing almost 17 kilograms.
The team of scientists included Field Museum and University of Chicago researcher Maria Valdes, who estimated that of the 45,000 meteorites recovered so far from the frozen wilderness of Antarctica, only about 100 have been as large as the largest member of this new shipment, which weighs 16.7 pounds (7.6 kilograms).
“Size doesn’t necessarily matter when it comes to meteorites, and even small micrometeorites can be incredibly valuable scientifically, but of course finding a large meteorite like this is rare and very exciting,” Valdes said in a statement.
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The team, which was led by Vinciane Debaille, a planetary scientist at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (FNRS-ULB) in Belgium, was the first to explore new potential meteor sites that were mapped using satellite images.
“Going on an adventure exploring unknown areas is exciting, but we also had to face the fact that the reality on the ground is much more difficult than the beauty of satellite images,” Debaille said in the statement.
The team planned their trip for the Antarctic summer at the end of December, but temperatures in the region still hovered around 14 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 10 degrees Celsius). Valdes said that at certain points during the mission, Antarctica was actually warmer than Chicago, but the weather was more extreme for the team because of days spent snowmobiling and hiking through ice fields and nights spent sleeping in tents .
With such frigid conditions even in the middle of summer, Antarctica may seem like an unlikely place anyone would choose to visit, yet for meteor hunters like this team, this cold vista offers unique opportunities. That’s because Antarctica is one of the best places on earth to hunt for meteorites.
Antarctica is a desert with a dry climate, which reduces the amount of weathering experienced by meteorites. Also, in the snowy white landscape, the black hue of these space rocks stand out when they are on the surface of the region.
Conditions in Antarctica are even favorable for discovering meteorites that may have sunk under snow and ice. This is because the churning motion of glaciers moving against rock can re-expose meteorites near the surface.
While there’s no denying that the largest meteorite recovered by the team is a cool one, it’s far from the largest or most massive example of such a space rock to reach Earth’s surface. The record is held by the Hoba meteorite from Namibia. The Hoba is 9 feet (2.7 meters) long, 9 feet wide and 3 feet (0.9 meters) thick and weighs approximately 66 tons or 132,000 pounds (60,000 kg). It is almost 7,765 times heavier than the recently discovered Antarctic meteorite.
The stunning new space rock and the other meteorites recovered by the researchers will now be analyzed at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, while team members will share and individually study sediment samples they collected from Antarctica.
Valdes is excited to learn what secrets the meteorites hold. “Studying meteorites helps us better understand our place in the universe,” she said. “The larger sample of meteorites we have, the better we can understand our solar system and the better we can understand ourselves.”
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