They discover a rare meteorite weighing 7.7 kilograms in Antarctica

(CNN) — During a recent excursion to the frozen plains of Antarctica, an international team of researchers discovered five new meteorites, including one of the largest ever found on the continent.

This rare meteorite is the size of a melon, but weighs 7.7 kilograms. It is one of the 100 meteorites of that size or larger discovered in Antarctica, a privileged place for the search for meteorites, where more than 45,000 space rocks have been located.

The exceptional find is headed to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, where it will be studied. María Valdés, a research scientist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and the University of Chicago, who was part of the expedition team, preserved some of the material for analysis.

antarctica meteorite

During an expedition to Antarctica that ended on January 16, researchers found five meteorites, including one of the largest specimens (pictured) recovered from the continent. Credit: Maria Valdes

Valdés’ area of ​​interest is cosmochemistry. This “means, in general terms, that we use meteorites to study the origin and evolution of the solar system through chemical methods,” he explained to CNN. Valdés will take samples from it and use strong acids to dissolve them before using a process called calibrated chemistry to isolate the various elements that make up the rock.

“Then I will be able to start thinking about the origin of this rock, how it evolved over time, what type of mother body it came from and where in the solar system it was formed”, explains Valdés. “Those are the big questions we’re trying to answer.”

to meet

Meteors strike Earth evenly across its entire surface, so Antarctica doesn’t host a disproportionately large concentration of them, Valdés noted. But the pure white ice is an ideal backdrop for spotting the jet-black rocks.

The search for meteorites is “very simple and less complicated than people think,” explains Valdés. “We go walking or snowmobiling, searching the surface.”

antarctica meteorite

The expedition team (from left to right) is shown: Maria Schönbächler, from ETH-Zurich; Ryoga Maeda, from Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Université Libre de Bruxelles; Vinciane Debaille, from ULB, and María Valdés, from the Field Museum and the University of Chicago. Credit: Maria Valdes

But the team had an idea of ​​where to look. A January 2022 study used satellite data to help narrow down where meteorites were most likely to be found.

“The meteorites themselves are too small to be detected from space with satellites,” Valdés explained. “But this study used satellite measurements of surface temperature, surface slope, surface velocity, ice thickness… things like that. And it introduced [los datos] in a machine-learning algorithm to tell us where the best chances of finding meteorite accumulation zones are.”

According to Valdés, distinguishing a meteorite from other rocks can be a complicated process. The researchers are looking for the fusion crust, a glassy layer that forms when the cosmic object hurtles through Earth’s atmosphere.

“Many rocks may look like meteorites, but they are not,” he explains. “We call these meteor-no.”
Another distinguishing characteristic is the weight of the possible specimen. A meteorite is much heavier for its size than a typical terrestrial rock, because it is packed with dense metals.

The conditions to which the researchers were subjected were exhausting. Although Valdés and three other scientists carried out their mission during the continent’s “summer,” which offered 24 hours of daylight, temperatures still hovered around minus 10 degrees Celsius, according to a Field Museum news release.

The research team spent about a week and a half with a polar field guide, living in tents set up on the frozen ground. However, Valdés said that she and her colleagues also spent time at a Belgian research station near the coast of Antarctica, where they enjoyed hot and cheesy meals, such as fondue.

As for future research, the good news, Valdés added, is that the five meteorites that she and her colleagues discovered on this expedition are just the tip of the iceberg.

“I’m really looking forward to going back there,” he said. “According to the satellite survey, there are at least 300,000 meteorites still waiting to be picked up in Antarctica. And the larger the [número de] samples we have, the better we can understand our solar system.

Vinciane Debaille, a professor at the Free University of Brussels, led the excursion. Maria Schönbächler, a professor at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zurich, and doctoral student Ryoga Maeda, from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the Free University of Brussels, joined her and Valdés.

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