In a recent expedition to Antarctica, researchers discovered five perfectly preserved meteorites that were likely hidden under the ice for thousands of years. One of them was one of the heaviest meteorites ever found on the continent. The five space rocks crashed into the ice thousands of years ago. The meteorites were found on the surface of the Nils Larsen blue ice area near the Belgian-owned Princess Elisabeth Antarctica station.
An 8 Kg Meteorite
Of the five meteorites, the standout was a rock the size of a melon that weighed a hefty 7.6 kilograms. Of the 45,000 meteorites discovered in Antarctica, only about 100 have been as heavy as this one. “Size doesn’t necessarily matter when it comes to meteorites, and even tiny micrometeorites can be incredibly valuable scientifically” said expedition scientist Maria Valdes, a meteorist at the Field Museum of Chicago, in a press release. “But obviously, finding a big meteorite like this is rare and really exciting.”
The meteorites were uncovered in early January, but they didn’t crash to Earth recently. The space rocks were probably buried in the ice for thousands of years and only reemerged after the glaciers’ agitated movement brought them to the surface. Since the meteorites were protected from the elements under the ice, the rocks are perfectly intact. “The objects come from the asteroid belt (located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter) and probably fell into the Antarctic ice several tens of thousands of years ago,” said expedition scientist Ryoga Maeda.
A Difficult Search
Normally, researchers have to sift through the ice caps in the hope of encountering a meteorite. In this case, scientists were able to narrow down their search thanks to a study published on January 26, 2022 in the journal Science Advances (ref.). By using satellite data and AI, they identified parts of Antarctica where meteorites are most likely to be brought to the surface. And it was in one of these hot spots that these space rocks were discovered.
Even though they had a specific location to search, it was still hard work to find them. “The reality on the ground is much more difficult than the beauty of satellite images” said expedition chief scientist Vinciane Debaille, a geochemist at the University of Brussels.
The collected samples were immediately sent to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels to be properly thawed and analyzed. But each expedition scientist also took samples of potential meteorite dust that they collected around the fallen space rocks for their own research.
Use of Satellite Data
The expedition was the first to search for meteorites based on the hotspots highlighted by the 2022 satellite study. The success suggests that the study could also be used by other researchers to retrieve even more frozen meteorite fragments. In the study, the researchers estimated that up to 300,000 meteorites could be concealed by the ice surface. This means that only about 15% have been recovered so far.
Expedition team hopes to find more meteorites to help us better understand our cosmic neighborhood. “The study of meteorites helps us understand our place in the universe” Valdes said. “The larger the sample of meteorites we have, the better we can understand our solar system and the better we can understand ourselves.”