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 discovered on that continent.
The rare meteorite is about the size of a melon but weighs 7.7 kilograms. It is one of about 100 of this size or larger discovered in Antarctica, and it is a major meteorite hunting site where more than 45,000 space rocks have been found.
Now, the extraordinary find is headed to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, where it will be studied. Maria Valdez, a researcher at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the University of Chicago who was part of the expedition, retained a portion of the material for her own analysis.
Valdes’ area of focus is cosmic chemistry. This “means, in general, that we use meteorites to study the origin and evolution of the solar system through chemical methods,” he told CNN. The scientist will use acids to dissolve the samples before using a process called titration to isolate the different elements that make up the rock.
“Then I can start to think about where this rock came from, how it has evolved over time, what kind of parent body it came from, and where in the solar system this parent body formed. Those are some of the big questions we are trying to address,” he explained.
Valdez noted that meteorites hit the Earth over its entire surface, so Antarctica does not have a large concentration. But pure white ice is the perfect backdrop for spotting black rocks.
Search for meteorites [que dão origem aos meteoritos quando entram na atmosfera] It was, “really, low-tech and less complicated than people might think,” Valdes revealed. “Or we go around on foot or on a snowmobile, looking up at the roof.”
But the team had an idea of where to look. One The study was conducted in January 2022 Use satellite data to help narrow down the most likely places to find meteorites.
“The meteorites themselves are too small to be detected from space using satellites,” Valdez emphasized. “But this study used satellite measurements of surface temperature, surface tilt, surface velocity, ice thickness—things like that. And it correlated the data with an algorithm to tell us where it was most likely to find areas of accumulation of meteorites.”
Valdez noted that distinguishing a meteorite from other rocks can be a difficult process. Researchers are searching for the fusion crust, a glassy layer that forms when a cosmic body speeds through Earth’s atmosphere.
“Many rocks may look like meteorites, but they are not,” he said.
Another distinguishing feature is the weight of the sample. The meteorite is much heavier than terrestrial rocks of the same size because it is full of dense minerals.
The conditions the researchers experienced in the field were grueling. Although Valdes and three other scientists conducted their mission during the continent’s “summer,” with 24 hours of daylight, temperatures still hovered around -10 degrees Celsius, according to a statement from the Field Museum.
The research team spent about a week and a half with a guide, living in tents set up 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 hot meals and even cheese fondues.
When it comes to research, Valdes 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 looking forward to going back. According to the study, there are at least 300,000 meteorites waiting to be collected in Antarctica. The more samples we have, the better we can understand our solar system,” he said.
The tour was led by Vincienne Depay, a professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels. In addition to Maria Valdes, Maria Schönbächler, professor at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zurich, and doctoral student Ryoga Maeda from Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the Free University of Bruxelles participated.
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