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Meteorite collectors in Antarctica

by Bruno Van de Casteele

September 29, 2013

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Donate Meteorite collection is a very interesting scientific endeavour. A very popular location for scientists to collect them is Antarctica. Not only are they preserved in freezing temperatures without hardly any contamination, there are several locations on the continent where a lot of meteorites can be found on the surface.

At first that seems a bit odd. It snows a lot in Antarctica, so any object falling from the heavens should get buried very soon. But the snow and ice are not static. As the below drawing illustrates, meteorites get buried and move across the ice and snow. Most of the meteorites end up in icebergs, where they are eventually lost to the sea, but some come together in a "meteorite trap" when they get pushed up against a mountain range.

One of these traps is a blue ice field near the Belgian scientific station Princess Elisabeth on Antarctica (near the Sor Rondane mountains). In several joint Belgian-Japanese expeditions over the last few years, researchers have combed through the Nansen icefield with snowmobiles looking for conspicuous black objects against the white surface.

The expedition this summer (summer in Antarctica of course) was a very succesful one. Not only did the team bring back 75 kg of meteorites from their six-week expedition, but managed to find a big whopper of 18 kg, the biggest find in the last 25 years on Antarctica.

After collection from the field, the meteorites are sent frozen to a Japanese laboratory. There they are unfrozen in a vacuum, as this makes the ice sublimate. This ensures that the meteorite remains dry and uncontaminated, available for further study.

In the end, the goal is not to collect the largest sack of meteorities or be able to score the biggest piece. Meteorites are an important remnant of the creation of the solar system, and are interesting scientific study objects. Furthermore, as a lot of specimen are collected, there is a bigger chance to find rarer meteorites, be it in composition or origin. Meteorites from the Moon or Mars have been found in these expeditions. They present a unique opportunity to study our closest neighbours without actually going there. They can also be used to calibrate instruments we send over in spacecraft.

In all, an interesting collaboration project between researchers from the Free University of Brussels and Tokyo University. Antarctica is a protected continent, where only scientific expeditions are allowed. Results like these show why this is a very very good idea, and why it should remain like this.

For more information, check the BELSPO website, and more precisely their publication on the different Antarctic expeditions in which Belgium participates.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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