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 (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).
|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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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