Meteorite Hunters Undaunted by Antarctica's Challenges
The sun never sets: a view of meteorite hunter’s campsite taken at 11pm.
Credit: ANSMET

A team of rock hounds is in chilly pursuit of meteorites, scouring their snowy surroundings as part of the 2010-11 field season of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) program.

In a recent blog post from Antarctica's LaPaz ice sheet, members of the search team reported the hunting is good.

"We've been camping on the ice here for two weeks and they have gone by fast," wrote Melissa Lane of the Planetary Science Institute, which is based in Tucson, Ariz. "In all, we found 170 meteorites here and the most interesting one, petrologically, seems to be the last one found!"

Lane is a planetary geologist on the Reconnaissance Team, which also includes John Schutt, an ANSMET veteran of 30 years serving as the science lead and safety officer, Serena Aunon, astronaut and physician from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and geologist Stephen Ballou of Beloit College in Wisconsin.

"We've all grown accustomed to the stark beauty here," Lane wrote. "The flatness, the wind, the snow, and even (sort of) the cold are all special here. The team is going to miss this place, but we are excited for new scenery, too. We are moving our camp to the Patuxent Range that is over 100 miles to our NE. We'll describe it once we see it."

Better suited for Houdini

The Recon Team arrived at the LaPaz ice sheet Dec. 16, delivered along with its tents, sleeping gear and cooking stoves aboard a Twin Otter aircraft. Two other aircraft delivered snowmobiles the next day, allowing the eager scientists to begin their first meteorite hunt.

"The beauty of the area and sheer fun of navigating our snow machines over endless frozen ocean waves? was a thrill for all," said Ballou. "Spirits are high and we are all thrilled to be here, but every facet of our lives here is work. It is challenging to do normal everyday things like dress, eat -- and just leaving the tent is often an act better suited for Houdini."

The Reconnaissance Team is gearing up for 25 more days of camping in Antarctica, coupled with the change of scenery in the Patuxent Range, "where we can continue our new passions of meteorite hunters and huntresses extraordinaire," Ballou noted.

NASA's Aunon described in a recent blog what the team faces.

"Winds, winds...and more winds," Aunon wrote. "In Antarctica the winds are relentless and forced the Recon Team to spend yesterday and this morning inside the tent.

"We did manage to get out in the afternoon, however, and found an additional four meteorites in the field."

Aunon said preparing to go out on the ice takes the better part of an hour. Team members put on multiple layers of thermal clothing, apply sunscreen, gather equipment and warm up the snowmobiles.

"The Ski-Doos are our best friend out in the field as they carry a survival kit for four people, meteorite gathering equipment, multiple liters of water, food, medical kits, iridium phones and GPS devices," Aunon said. "We take extra care in the mornings examining the Ski-Doo engines to ensure peak performance."

Collection process

ANSMET field work has been supported since 1976 by grants from the Office of Polar Programs of the National Science Foundation and NASA's Planetary Science Division.

Meteorites have been found in Antarctica since the continent was first explored. The first one was found in 1912, by a member of an expedition from Australia.

So what happens when a team member spots a meteorite?

The collection process starts by using the meteorite hunter's toolkit, a relatively simple collection of gear: sterile bags to contain the rocks, numbered tags to label them, tape to close and seal the bags, a notebook to take down any distinguishing features of the sample, and scissors to cut the tape or the bags open.

Great care is taken not to touch the meteorite or even breathe on it. Above all, a dripping nose hovering over a specimen is a no-no!

The meteorite is placed in a sterile bag as quickly as possible, usually by putting the bag over it. The meteorite is measured and sometimes photographed, and its size and color and possible classification are noted.

A small aluminum tag with an ID number is also inserted into the bag, and the whole thing is then sealed up tight.

At the end of a good day, a hunter's backpack can be full of these meteorite samples.

Collected meteorites are shipped still frozen to the Antarctic Meteorite Curation labs at Johnson Space Center. There the samples are carefully dried and cracked open, and small pieces are broken off for study as thin sections.

A day of rest

With the team ready to be transported to its new location, it was informed by briefers at South Pole Station Dec. 29 that weather over the Patuxent Range was not good and that the Twin Otters would be unable to fly out.

"Could it be true? A day off? As much as we would like to continue the search for meteorites, a day of rest was welcome," Aunon said. "We were able to catch up on phone calls with family and friends, write postcards, wash our hair (very refreshing but time consuming), write in our journals and enjoy a matinee showing of 'Nacho Libre' with the team."

Now well rested, the Recon Team is primed to continue its meteorite adventure at the Patuxent Range.

"In all, this will require four flights to transfer tents, food, Ski-Doos, fuel, and people. If we?re lucky we?ll have two Twin Otters at our disposal and get everything transferred in one day. We?ll keep you updated," Aunon said, signing off.

If you'd like to keep tabs on the intrepid explorers and their Antarctic field work, check their blogs by going to:

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for since 1999.