Scientists are heading back to Antarctica to search for more Meteorites. The search is being led by the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and it is called the Antarctic Search for Meteorites, or ANSMET.
Since its formation in 1976, ANSMET has obtained nearly 20,000 meteorites. Annual counts have ranged from 30 meteorites to more than 1,200. Over 80% of the world’ space rocks have come from Antarctica.
The meteorites that are obtained by ANSMET originate from asteroids, the moon and sometimes even Mars. Scientists have been using these space rocks to obtain a better understanding of our solar system.
Lead scientist for the exhibition Jim Karner says, “ANSMET has been a great boon for scientists. We don’t own the samples. They’re curated by the Smithsonian and NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and (they are) really free to anybody in the world who wants to study them.”
Karner is particularly enthusiastic about the potential to learn more about the solar system by studying these space artifacts.
“There is a myriad of studies you can do with meteorites. They tell us about the properties of our solar system and the evolution of planetary bodies. Some really old meteorites even have solid pieces of minerals that predate our solar system,” he says.
Other scientists make use of the meteorites to study how the Earth originally formed.
Smithsonian geologist Cari Corrigan says, “One thing we can do with meteorites is develop a better understanding of the Earth. If we can understand the composition and the makeup of the early solar system, we will have a much better picture of the Earth’s early composition and structure and the processes that had to take place to give us what we have now.”
Corrigan also believes that meteorites might be the key to discovering how life first came to exist on Earth.
“Things like amino acids have been found in meteorites in the last 20 years, the starting compositions for life on Earth. Trying to understand what we started out as, and what we started out with, will help us understand why the Earth evolved the way it did,” she says.
While meteorites can land anywhere on Earth, Antarctica is an ideal spot to gather samples. The continent is largely composed of ice sheets that are free of any indigenous surface rocks. Virtually every rock that is found in the area is a meteorite. Plus, they are easy to spot in the icy background.
One area referred to by scientists as Miller Range is one of the best sites. Hundreds of meteorites are located per square mile. This year is the ninth year that ANSMET will visit the region.
Karner says, “We’ve found every conceivable type of meteorite in the Miller Range. So it’s been this great range of diversity.”
Additionally, the frozen land of Antarctica, where airborne moisture is virtually nonexistent, basically preserves the meteorites that would be damaged by moisture elsewhere on the planet.
After a season’s worth of meteorites is collected in Antarctica, the meteorites are shipped to Houston and provided descriptions and sorted by NASA. Small samples are sent to the Smithsonian for additional classification. The Smithsonian publishes a newsletter containing a list of all the different types of meteorites. Scientific institutions are then able to request samples.
Meteorites are classified by chemical composition, mineralogy, and the presence of certain elements. However they are generally sorted into four groups: chondrites, achondrites, stony-iron and iron.
While, the scientists rarely find anything that is particularly noteworthy or groundbreaking, they do believe that continuing to search for meteorites is a valuable endeavor so that their findings can be studied by research facilities across America.
The more data they have, the better.