Down to Earth With: Antarctic meteorite hunters

by Meg Marquardt
Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Dotted with snow dunes and nunatak mountain ranges, Antarctica’s glacial landscapes give the continent an otherworldly feel — but the scenery isn’t what’s truly alien. Antarctica is littered with meteorites, hundreds of thousands of which have been untouched since the moment of impact. For more than 35 years, the volunteer scientists of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) program have been scouring the icy plains in search of meteorites from meteoroids, the moon and even Mars.

The program began in 1976 when Bill Cassidy, a planetary geologist at the University of Pittsburgh, led ANSMET’s first team to hunt for meteorites among the Transantarctic Mountains. They brought back hundreds of meteorites, which were dispersed to planetary scientists all over the country. The altruism and success of the program is what keeps it going, says current ANSMET director Ralph Harvey, a planetary scientist at Case Western Reserve University, who first traveled to the Antarctic as Cassidy’s graduate student about 10 years into the program.

“The need for the specimens — or at least the desire for them — among planetary scientists hasn’t gotten any smaller,” Harvey says. With today’s technology and the improved efficiency that comes with nearly four decades of experience, ANSMET now returns up to a thousand samples each year. In total, the hunters have found more than 10,000 meteorites. And when European and Japanese expeditions are added in, the total worldwide meteorite haul from the Antarctic is now more than 20,000.

Each year, the volunteers meet in Christchurch, New Zealand, in late November. After enjoying a few lovely austral spring days, they head for McMurdo Station, more than 3,800 kilometers south. Upon arrival, they begin survival training — including instruction on how to camp in Antarctica and how to avoid the dangers of ice crevasses, as well as an overnight dry run of the expedition. Once the field test is over, the teams head out on a six-week-long hunt.

This year, two separate teams are exploring different locations. One is a scout team headed out to explore a handful of ice fields around the Robison and Amundsen glaciers, and the other is conducting a systematic search of ice fields near Larkman Nunatak and the Grosvenor Mountains.

The teams are usually a mix of veteran ANSMET members and new explorers, Harvey says. The volunteers represent a wide range of scientific disciplines, from physicists to meteorite specialists, and Antarctic guides and mountaineers are also involved. Securing a place on the team is highly competitive, with some volunteers waiting more than seven years to be selected. But, as the stories of some of the 2012–2013 team attest, it’s worth the wait.

EARTH contributor Meg Marquardt checked in with a few of the meteorite hunters before they headed out to learn why they got involved in the program and what keeps them coming back.

Stanley Love NASA Astronaut

Before Love became an astronaut, he was a planetary scientist studying asteroids, comets and meteorites, and many of his colleagues took part in ANSMET. Once he joined, he learned firsthand that all of the exciting stories his friends told about it were true.

“I keep coming back because it’s totally cool!” he says. “I love the interesting people and vibrant community in Antarctica. The scenery is so gorgeous that once you’ve seen it, you can never forget it. It’s a pleasure to be part of the challenging marriage of cutting-edge science and extreme-environment operations that makes Antarctic research work. Antarctica is a lot like space in that respect.”

One particular story that stands out in his mind involves a strange bird. “During the 2004–2005 season, one of the most interesting specimens we collected wasn’t a meteorite. It was a dead bird, desiccated and mummified by the cold. We carefully boxed it up and sent it off for identification. I heard later that it was a species unknown to science. How did it get out on the high plateau, hundreds of miles from the coast? How long had it been there before we found it? We may never know, but it’s fun to speculate about it.”

This is his second year out in the field.

Andrew Beck Meteoriticist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Beck has been working with the ANSMET meteorites since his days as a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He now works at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where the ANSMET meteorites are initially classified and stored.

“Somewhere along the way I realized I could participate in collecting the exceptional rocks I study,” he says. The 2012–2013 field season is his first with ANSMET, and he hopes it will help him better understand his research into paired meteorites, samples that appear to be from the same meteoroid but which are recovered from different locations. “Some of the pairing is based on collection proximity on the ice,” he says. “And it will be beneficial for me to understand the details of this process through hands-on experience.”

James Karner Planetary Scientist at Case Western Reserve University and ANSMET Secondary Science Leader

Karner, who works under Ralph Harvey at Case Western Reserve University, has been heading out to the Antarctic for half a decade. For him, the ANSMET expeditions tap into a primal calling.

“I love searching for and finding meteorites; in fact, I think that is an innate human [activity] — hunting for and finding hidden treasures,” he says. From all of his trips, one of his favorite memories was Christmas Day 2004, when he was gifted with an amazing find. As part of a four-person reconnaissance team scouting new areas in search of high meteorite concentrations, Karner came across a field that produced 51 meteorites in a single day — far higher than average. And there was something even more exciting about the finds: two of the samples were from Mars.

“This was really cool, as there are only about 60 Martian meteorites that have ever been found!” Karner says. “So, the Martian meteorites RBT 04261 and 04262, found on Christmas Day in 2004, hold a special memory for me.”

Tomoko Arai Planetary Scientist at the Chiba Institute of Technology

Arai is a lunar meteorite specialist at the Chiba Institute of Technology in Narashino, Japan. She has studied the ANMSET and Apollo lunar samples for more than 20 years in her efforts to understand the formation of the solar system, but has never been to Antarctica herself. Like so many other new recruits to the program, her excitement is equal parts enthusiasm and nervousness.

“I am a bit worried about the coldness and harshness of the ice fields in Antarctica, because I can hardly imagine them, given that I have little experience in outdoor sports or winter mountaineering,” she says. “[But] when I got an email from Ralph that I was a candidate for ANSMET this year, I was so excited that my long-lived dream had finally come true.”

Shaun Norman ANSMET Mountaineer

With more than 25 seasons on the ice, the Antarctic is Norman’s summer home. He was recruited by John Schutt, the senior ANSMET mountaineer. This will be Norman’s third time out with ANSMET, a trip he enjoys because they go to what he refers to as the “real Antarctic,” with camp locations at more than 1,800 meters in elevation where the temperatures plummet to minus 20 degrees Celsius and the wind blows at a crisp 30 kilometers per hour.

Once out there, it’s a beautiful vista, Norman says. He says he has “a cosmopolitan collection of mental images such as snow drifting on blue ice contrasting vividly with bright red parkas. There are happy tent evenings with a Scrabble game and a liqueur and fragmented memories of fixing broken Ski-doos ™ with freezing fingers. And there are memories of strolling out half a mile from camp in a low sun at midnight, thinking how lucky one is to be in such a remarkable environment.”

Joseph Boyce Planetary Scientist at the University of Hawaii

Boyce, another ANSMET veteran, says he keeps coming back for one thing: the unlimited chocolate, a favorite snack easily transported in the field. Well, there are a few more reasons, he adds.

“The number one reason is because of the science value,” he says. “The meteorites we find are the foundation for many of the magnificent scientific discoveries that have given us a finer understanding of our universe. Second, and as would be expected, is the adventure of exploring a very difficult and remote place.” But, he adds, all that chocolate doesn’t hurt, either.

John Schutt Senior Mountaineer for ANSMET

Schutt had been trying to get onto an Antarctic expedition since the 1970s, a desire that could be traced to his childhood. “From an early age, I was drawn to the mountains and cold environments,” he says. It wasn’t until he applied to ANSMET in 1980 that he finally got his chance, and he hasn’t looked back since. Schutt is participating in his 32nd ANSMET expedition this year.

“The list of reasons for returning to Antarctica is long. It includes a passion for exploration discovery, for seeing what is on the other side of the hill; for finding a piece of our solar system, which furthers our understanding of how we came to be,” he says. “Antarctica itself is a reason to keep coming back, a place of incredible beauty — remote and challenging in the extreme. I also love going to places no has been before or where only a select few have ever been. And I love the privilege of working with smart, remarkable and wonderful people. It’s a job like no other, following in the footsteps of heroes.”

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