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NEWS & EVENTS

A Dream Come True

By Lucy McFadden, Dawn Co-Investigator, University of Maryland

  Dr. Lucy McFadden, Dawn Co-Investigator and Education and Public Outreach lead
  Dr. Lucy McFadden, Dawn Co-Investigator and Education and Public Outreach (E/PO) lead
Photo credit: M. Keiding, 2007

February 2008 -- I first heard about searching for meteorites in Antarctica when I was in graduate school over 25 years ago. It was in 1969 that glaciologists from the Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition first realized that glaciers and their ice flow result in a concentration of meteorites at the surface (see Figure 1).

I commented to my thesis advisor that I would go search for meteorites myself some day. His response was that by the time I finished my graduate work, all of the meteorites would have been found. I focused on my graduate work, completely missing the humor in his remark and not knowing then whether or not he would be right. I received my PhD, continued in my research career, married and raised a family. 

A program funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation began searching for meteorites in Antarctica in 1976 and has continued to do so almost every year since.  Time has proven my thesis advisor wrong about finding all of the meteorites there; it is a big continent (see Figure 2) spanning 14 million square kilometers (5.4 million square miles).



An aerial view of the continent of Antarctica   Map of the continent of Antarctica
Fig. 1: An aerial view of the continent of Antarctica.
Photo credit: L. McFadden 2008
  Fig. 2: Map of the continent of Antarctica, orthographic projection of a satellite composite. Credit: NASA Blue Marble data set.

It wasn’t until 2006, when I found myself seated at a meeting with Ralph Harvey, the head of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) program, that it dawned on me that with my children both in college and living on their own, I could now seek the opportunity to pursue my dream of searching for meteorites. My husband said that he would be happy to hear about my adventure from the comfort of our home in Maryland and expressed his excitement about such an adventure even though it meant not celebrating the holiday season with family. I wrote Prof. Harvey expressing my interest and felt very fortunate to have been invited to participate in the 2007-2008 ANSMET season. Thus began my 10-week sabbatical from my daily work at U. Maryland’s Astronomy Department, an adventure in a cold, dry and remote part of the planet, and a very rewarding service to the pursuit of science and understanding of the material from the early solar system.

Leaving the day after Thanksgiving (November 23, 2007), I flew to Los Angeles to meet up with six other members of the team. We then flew to Christchurch, New Zealand where the National Science Foundation deploys all participants in  the U.S. Antarctic Program.

McMurdo Station, on McMurdo Sound, Antarctica   Team members receive food from the walk-in freezer at McMurdo Station
Fig. 3a: McMurdo Station,  a frontier town on the McMurdo Sound,  supports all U.S. logistics for  the U.S. Antarctic Program.
Photo credit: L. McFadden, 2008
  Fig. 3b: Team members receive food from the walk-in freezer at McMurdo Station and store it in freezer boxes for our 45 days on the ice. Photo credit: M. Keiding, 2007

Our mountain guide, John Schutt, was already preparing for our 6.5 weeks camping on the ice in the Miller Range, from McMurdo Station, the logistics hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program. We spent one week at McMurdo training and preparing for our search season (see Figures 3 a & b) and were then flown with our snow mobiles and gear  “to the ice” (see Figure 4) on a Basler BT-67 plane (see Figures 5 a & b). 
Aerial view of Hockey cirque and the Ascent glacier   Unloading a snowmobile from the plane at the Miller Range   The Basler BT-67 plane and unloaded fuel barrels and camp gear
Fig. 4: Aerial view of Hockey cirque and the Ascent glacier, near our field camp in the Miller Range. Photo credit: M. Keiding, 2007   Fig. 5a: Unloading a snow mobile from the plane that transported us to our field camp at the Miller Range.
Photo credit: M. Keiding, 2007
  Fig. 5b: The Basler BT-67 plane and unloaded fuel barrels and camp gear.
Photo credit: M. Keiding 2007

Landing on the Ascent glacier in a good wind (pilots like wind) we unloaded and drove our snow mobiles to our field camp about 15 minutes away. When our tents were up (see Figure 6a), we immediately chipped some ice, went into our tents, started our stove to melt ice and made a hot drink to warm up (see Figure 6b).  I was relieved to be in a warm and safe environment. The extreme cold with high winds can be dangerous, but our tents protected us from the wind, the stove kept us warm, there was plenty of fresh water once the ice melted and we brought plenty of food with us. We cooked all of our meals in our tents, which we shared with one other person. Marie Keiding, a graduate student from Denmark, studying in Iceland was my tent mate and an excellent cook too (see Figure 6c).

One of four tents in which 8 team members ate and slept during the field season   Marie Keiding fixing a hot drink after setting up camp   Marie cooks a dinner of falafel and spinach
Fig. 6a: One of our four tents in which 8 team members ate and slept during our field season.
Photo credit: M. Keiding, 2007
  Fig. 6b: Marie Keiding fixing a hot drink after setting up camp.
Photo credit: L. McFadden 2007
  Fig. 6c: Marie cooks a dinner of falafel and spinach, one of several tasty meals we prepared every night.
Photo credit: L. McFadden 2007

Once cozy in the tent, it was time for a meal and then some sleep. I had no idea that we would spend the next two days in our tent because the weather prohibited meteorite hunting.  The temperature got as low as -9F and the winds were estimated at 30-40 mph (see Figure 7). Our boots shook from their hanging perch at the top of the tent (it is also warm up there), the tent poles creaked in the wind, but the Scott tent (the same design used by polar explorer, Sir Robert F. Scott in the early 20th century) is designed to withstand winds over 100 mph. We were far from that.

Field camp during high winds   The tents, food boxes and snow mobiles appear to be partially buried in the drifted snow   Removing snow from the snow mobiles and digging them out
Fig. 7: Field camp during high winds. The blowing snow creates a haze near the surface of the ice and drifts around tents, food boxes and snow mobiles. It is difficult to walk and no one wants to stay outside more than necessary.
Photo credit: L. McFadden, 2007
  Fig. 8a: After the storm, the tents, food boxes and snow mobiles appear to be partially buried in the drifted snow. The sharp, irregular grooves and ridges formed on a snow surface by wind erosion and deposition are called sastrugi.
Photo credit: L. McFadden, 2007
  Fig. 8b: Removing snow from the snow mobiles and digging them out.
Photo credit: M. Keiding, 2007

Eventually, the winds died (see Figure 8a), but a lot of our gear was buried in snow, so we had to dig out (see Figure 8b). We were then well rested and ready to start our search for meteorites.

Like every good team, we followed our leaders, our field guide and our scientific leader (see Figure 9a). The search process has been developed over many years and includes both systematic and reconnaissance searches. We were visiting the Miller Range for the third season and our main objective was to systematically search the middle ice field. Our guide would select the location of a day’s search, which varied from being within walking distance to 40 km away.  When we searched, we formed a line either on snow mobile or on foot, traveling perpendicular to that line for awhile, forming a rectangle, shifting over and walking or driving back.

John Schutt, our mountaineer and field leaders convenes the team for planning the day of searching.   Team members gather to inspect and collect a meteorite being placed in a Teflon bag   Snow mobiles in a region of scattered rocks including locations marked by flags where meteorites were found.
Fig. 9a: John Schutt, our mountaineer and field leaders convenes the team for planning the day of searching.
Photo credit: M. Keiding, 2007
  Fig. 9b: Team members gather to inspect and collect a meteorite being placed in a Teflon bag.  Photo credit: M. Keiding, 2007   Fig. 9c: Snow mobiles in a region of scattered rocks including locations marked by flags where meteorites were found. The multi colored flags are actually on two snow mobiles and are  unfurled flags of Texas, the home state of two of our team members.
Photo credit: L. McFadden, 2007

Upon discovering a meteorite, we would call everyone over to have a look. Upon verifying its extraterrestrial nature, we would give it a number, photograph it, make an entry in a logbook noting its size and the amount of fusion crust. Picking it up with tongs, we’d place it in a Teflon bag with the number tag and tape it up (see Figure 9b).  We’d record the location of the find with our GPS leaving a flag with the meteorite’s number on it just in case we had to return to the location. Sometimes we would spend an hour in one place finding many meteorites, it often looked like a nest of them (see Figure 9c).

Over the course of our six and a half week stay, Twin Otter planes flew in to our camp twice supplying us with fuel, additional food and mail (see Figures 10 a & b). They also brought new springs for some of the snow mobiles. We endured four mechanical break downs, yet all but one could be fixed in the field (see Figure 11).

Twin Otter aircraft flies over the landing area before landing on the ice   John Schutt greets the pilot and co-pilot after landing   Team members worked on replacing broken springs in the suspension
Fig. 10a: A Twin Otter aircraft flies over the landing area before landing on the ice.
Photo credit: L. McFadden, 2007
  Fig. 10b: John Schutt greets the pilot and co-pilot after landing—a hand shake that speaks for the entire team.
Photo credit: L. McFadden, 2007
  Fig. 11: Team members worked on replacing broken springs in the suspension—a new skill learned by some and taught by others.
Photo credit: L. McFadden, 2007

During times of bad weather, we wrote in our journals, read books, played cards, listened to music, cooked scrumptous meals and enjoyed the presents and Christmas decorations sent by our family and colleagues (see Figures 12 a, b & c).

L. McFadden reading book during one of 12 tent days   Team members enjoying meal in tent   Holiday decorations including a green plastic Christmas tree, strings of penguins and New Years streamers hanging in the group tent
Fig. 12 a: Reading Lord of the Rings during one of 12 " tent" days.
Photo credit: M. Keiding, 2007
  Fig. 12 b: Marc, Les and I enjoying a meal during a pot luck supper.
Photo credit: M. Keiding, 2007
  Fig. 12 c: Colleagues sent us holiday decorations including a green plastic Christmas tree, strings of penguins and New Years streamers which we hung in the group tent which we called the party tent.
Photo credit: L. McFadden, 2007

We had 22 full days of meteorite searching, and eight half days. We found 710 meteorites, some as small as a little finger nail (about 1.0 x 0.5 x 0.5 cm) (see Figure 13a), and others about 8 pounds and too big to hold in one hand (about 25 cm x 15 cm x 12).

  A meteorite found during the Ansmet 2007-2008 season measuring 1 x 0.5 x 1 cm with 95% fusion crust   A meteorite measuring more than 6 cm long with sparse fusion crust covering only 1% of the specimen.
  Fig. 13a: A meteorite found during the Ansmet 2007-2008 season measuring
1 x 0.5 x 1 cm with 95% fusion crust.
Photo credit: ANSMET 2007 Case Western Reserve University
  Fig. 13b: A meteorite measuring more than 6 cm long with sparse fusion crust covering only 1% of the specimen.
Photo credit: ANSMET 2007 Case Western Reserve University

Figure 13b is a fist-sized meteorite with little remaining fusion crust. We all found the hunt very exciting. They are shipped back to the US, transported by boat to Houston TX and expected to arrive in March or April 2008. They will then be catalogued and classified at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, then described in a newsletter for researchers who will request samples for study.  Scientists will then perform their measurements, report results at meetings and write their findings in journals that are reviewed by their peers for accuracy and clarity.

Antarctica is a beautiful place that is preserved for peaceful and scientific purposes by the Antarctic Treaty.  It was a privilege and an adventure being there, not to mention a dream come true. On the other hand, it was a lonely place and I missed my family, friends and colleagues.  It was an unique experience and I am pleased to have had the opportunity to serve scientific research, helping us more fully understand the nature of the early solar system from studying these remnants from the past.

- Finding meteorites in Antarctica image gallery
- Listen to August 8, 2008 Webinar: Journey to the Bottom of the World

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