The discovery of a rare 17-pound meteorite in Antarctica

During an expedition to Antarctica that concluded on January 16, researchers found five meteorites, including one of the largest specimens recovered from the continent. (Maria Valdes)

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ATLANTA — During a recent expedition to the icy plains of Antarctica, an international team of researchers discovered five new meteorites — including one of the largest ever found on the continent.

The rare meteorite is about the size of a cantaloupe but weighs 17 pounds. The specimen is one of only about 100 of this size or larger that have been discovered in Antarctica, a major metropolitan hunting site where more than 45,000 space rocks have been tracked.

Now, the extraordinary find is headed to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, where it will be studied. And Maria Valdez, a research scientist at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History and the University of Chicago who was part of the expedition team, kept some of the material for her own analysis.

Valdes’ area of ​​focus is cosmic chemistry. This “broadly means that we use meteorites to study the origin and evolution of the solar system through chemical methods,” she told CNN. You’ll take samples and use strong acids to dissolve them before using a process called titrimetric chemistry to isolate the different elements that make up the rock.

“Then I can start thinking about the origin of this rock, how it evolved over time, what kind of parent body it came from, and where in the solar system this parent body formed,” Valdes said. “These are the big questions we’re trying to answer.”

in pursuit

Valdez noted that meteorites strike Earth evenly across its surface, so Antarctica is not home to a disproportionately large concentration of them. But the pure white ice is a perfect backdrop for spotting the jet black rock.

The search for meteorites is “really low technology and a lot less complicated than people might think,” Valdez said. “Either we drive around or we drive on a snowmobile, and we look up at the roof.”

But the team had an idea of ​​where to look. A January 2022 study used satellite data to help narrow down the locations where meteorites are most likely to be found.

“The meteorites themselves are too small to be detected from space using satellites,” Valdes explained. “But this study used satellite measurements of surface temperature, surface slope, surface velocity, ice thickness — things like that. And (the data) was plugged into a machine learning algorithm to tell us where the highest odds are for finding areas of meteorite accumulation.”

Distinguishing a meteorite from other rocks, Valdez said, can be a tricky process. Researchers are searching for the fusion crust, a glassy layer that forms when a cosmic body collapses through Earth’s atmosphere.

“A lot of rocks can look like meteorites, but they aren’t,” she said. “We call these meteorites.”

Many rocks can look like meteorites, but they are not. We call these meteorite faults.

Maria Valdez, Chicago Field Museum of Natural History

Another distinguishing feature is the potential sample weight. The meteorite would be much heavier for its size than a typical Earth rock because it is full of dense minerals.

The conditions the researchers endured were stressful. Although Valdes and three other scientists conducted their mission during the continent’s “summer,” which provided 24 hours of daylight, temperatures still approached 14 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a press release from the Field Museum.

The research team spent about a week and a half with a polar field guide, living in tents pitched on the icy ground. However, Valdez said she and her colleagues also spent time at a Belgian research station near the coast of Antarctica, where they enjoyed warm, cheesy foods, such as fondue.

And when it comes to future research, Valdez added, the good news is that the five meteorites she and her colleagues discovered on this expedition are just the tip of the iceberg.

“I’m eager to go back there for sure,” she said. “Based on the satellite study, there are 300,000 meteorites, at least, waiting to be collected in Antarctica. The more samples we have, the better we can understand our solar system.”


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