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Scientists Are Hunting for Preserved Meteorites in Antarctic Glaciers

While you could say the ice makes this a polar opposite to mummy hunting, there are actually a lot of similarities.

Nina Lanza is a staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who's embarking on a nearly six week hunt for meteorites in Antarctica, meteorites that can give scientists a closer look at the geology and composition of the planets they came from.

The study is a part of the NASA-funded Antarctic Search for Meteorites Team (ANSMET), run by the Case Western Reserve University, and for this endeavor, she'll be kicking off a video series with other ANSMET researchers—"Science in 60," the first of which is above—that will hopefully get you to better understand the interplanetary material lying beneath the Antarctic sheets in a minute, more or less.


Lanza is currently stationed at McMurdo Station, which rests at the tip of Antarctica closest to New Zealand.

Antarctica is a particularly good candidate for space rock hunting because of a few factors: one, meteorites are dark and thus easier to see in the glacial backdrop; two, the ice preserves the meteorite longer than say, ocean water; and three, because glaciers shed their layers in such a way that those meteorites can be unearthed like mummies.

"So [the meteorite] is stuck in the glacier as the glacier moves, but if it runs into a mountain range the ice will slow down. Then the wind from the center of the continent will ablate, or remove the ice from these areas that aren't moving. So all these rocks that got stuck in the ice somewhere else are being concentrated in areas that are removing layers of ice," Lanza told me.

And while you could say the ice makes this a polar opposite to mummy hunting, there are actually a lot of similarities.

"It's really dry because there's a lot of ice involved and that limits the amount of contact that these materials have with liquid water. That prevents them from chemically modified," Lanza said.

Antarctica's also just naturally a better place to look because meteorites simply get lost on a lot of places on Earth. Cornell astronomers have estimated that some 36 and 166 meteorites larger than 10 grams fall every million square kilometers on Earth per year (for reference, Earth is approximately 510 million square kilometers).

"The meteorites are falling into America as much as they are falling in Antarctica, but most of the Earth is an ocean so they just fall into the ocean…never to be seen again," Lanza said, sadly. "But Antarctica is a great place because you would find more of them in one place than you'd could find in, say, Los Angeles."