To study the Solar System we often have to go to different celestial bodies and take samples, but sometimes the samples are delivered to us. With this in mind, three federal organizations, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution, have renewed their partnership in hunting meteorites in Antarctica for an additional decade.
The project is called ANSMET (Antarctica Search for Meteorites) and it has been running since 1976. It has so far lead to the discovery of more than 23,000 specimens including rocks coming from the Moon, Mars, and the asteroid belt.
Over the course of Earth’s history, meteorites might have been responsible for carrying volatiles like water and organic matter to our planet’s surface. By studying these meteorites, scientists are unlocking some of the mysteries of the universe.
“Antarctic meteorites are posing new questions about the formation and early history of our Solar System,” said Smithsonian meteorite scientist Tim McCoy in a statement. “Some of these questions are spurring new exploration of the Solar System by NASA missions.”
Among these, there’s the famous ALH84001 meteorite from Mars, which was probably blasted by an impact on the Red Planet about 3.6 billion years ago. This object is notorious as it contains some peculiar structures that were interpreted by some scientists as fossilized evidence of primitive life on Mars.
Antarctica is an ideal place for meteorite hunting. The cold dry climate preserves specimens unaltered for a long period of time, and the shift in the ice sheets actually helps in concentrating meteorites in some regions, making it much easier for the researchers to find them and collect them.
This vast collection has led to thousands of scientific publications, and it is open to any researcher that would like to investigate further.
“The vast scientific value of the ANSMET collection comes not only from the meteorites themselves but also from the fact they are deposited in two of the finest curation facilities in the world – at NASA and the Smithsonian – and are made freely and promptly available to all qualified scientists who want to study them,” said Jeffrey Grossman, program scientist for curation at NASA Headquarters.
Meteorites might be minute samples of their original bodies, but they can still teach us a lot about them.