British scientists are preparing for the first ever UK-led expedition to look for meteorites in Antarctica, with the hope of finding an elusive hidden cache they suspect lies beneath the ice.
Antarctica has a lot of meteorites. Being dark, they are easy to spot on an icy white background, and are actually pushed towards the surface by upward flowing ice into what are known as Meteorite Stranding Zones. The new expedition, however, is specifically looking for iron-rich meteorites, which are much rarer than their rocky brethren and could help explain how planets are created.
The scientists from the University of Manchester, with logistical and operational support from the British Antarctic Survey at its Halley research station (yes, the one that looks like a bunch of Star Wars AT-AT walkers), are planning a reconnaissance mission in 2019 to scout for potential areas to search. The main expedition will likely then take place in 2020.
“We are delighted to be supporting this research project to hunt for the lost meteorites of Antarctica,” said Professor David Vaughan, director of science at British Antarctic Survey, in a statement. “The continent constantly reveals so many secrets about our Earth such as our past climate from ice and sediment cores so it’s great to work with UK researchers to help them solve another puzzle about Earth’s, and our Solar System’s, formation.”
Over two-thirds of the planet’s meteorites have been found in Antarctica, however the majority have been stony meteorites, with iron ones significantly underrepresented in the specimens collected. Iron meteorites are formed from the cores of planetesimals, tiny planets that were destroyed on impact with larger planetary bodies at the beginning of the Solar System. Why more haven’t been found is curious.
"In Antarctica, only 0.7 percent of the meteorites collected from these Meteorite Stranding Zones are iron-based, way below the 5.5 percent collected from the rest of the world," principal investigator Dr Geoffrey Evatt told IFLScience. However, "iron meteorites allow us to look into the cores of planets that used to exist billions of years ago. In so doing, we can learn how they formed, and thus how Earth is likely to have formed."