staffers will go to the ends of the Earth and back in the
name of science. Take, for example, Nancy Chabot, Ben
Bussey, Cari Corrigan and Andrew Dombard, all of whom have
spent time in Antarctica collecting meteorites as part of
the Antarctic Search for Meteorites program, known as
ANSMET, which is funded by the National Science
Foundation's Office of Polar Programs and NASA, aims to
find and characterize meteorite samples in Antarctica and
make those samples available to researchers worldwide.
Since its inception in 1976, ANSMET has provided the
scientific community with more than 15,000 meteorite
specimens. These samples are a unique way to study outer
space without actually leaving the planet, and they can
offer important clues about the formation of the solar
system and the compositions and histories of asteroids and
other planetary bodies.
Antarctica is uncommonly fertile ground for meteorite
hunting; about 85 percent of all meteorites recovered
worldwide are found there. In some areas, the Antarctic ice
sheet, nearly two miles thick, effectively buries the
continent and allows little to no accumulation of
indigenous sediment, which means that any rocks found on
the surface are likely extraterrestrial. They are easy to
spot because they contrast starkly with the homogeneously
Antarctica's ice flow acts as a natural concentration
mechanism. As the ice sheet creeps across the continent, it
occasionally bumps into mountain ranges and other
obstructions beneath the ice. When strong winds strike such
areas, they remove large accumulations of snow and ice,
exposing clusters of meteorites on the surface.
Individual ANSMET missions last eight weeks —
six spent looking for meteorites, with a week at either end
for preparation and cleanup.
The journey to Antarctica begins in New Zealand, where
travelers assemble their gear, and the flight out of this
subtropical paradise can be as treacherous as Antarctica
itself, attests Dombard, a scientist in the Space
Department's Planetary Exploration Group.
"We were packed in like sardines for seven hours, and
it was very noisy," he said. "It's especially uncomfortable
if the weather is bad. When I went, it took us four tries
to get down there, with Antarctic weather canceling the
flight or forcing the plane to turn back to New Zealand
after making it halfway."
The sojourn in Antarctica has its own hazards. That's
why researchers participate in a two-day survival school,
learning how to cope with the inhospitable climate and how
to execute a rescue if something goes wrong.
Chabot, also a scientist in the Planetary Exploration
Group, has visited Antarctica five times.
"We would wake up, eat breakfast in the tent, dress
warm and get prepared for the day, with plenty of sunscreen
— the sun is up 24 hours a day in the summer season,"
she said about the start of a typical day. Then each member
of the team would get on a snowmobile and travel to the ice
field to search for meteorites. This usually involved
driving up and down in systematic grids to cover the ice
area, stopping whenever they found a meteorite.
"Some days were slow," Chabot said, "and we'd find
less than 10 meteorites. But other days, we collected more
than 100 in one day."
Lunch usually consisted of beef sticks and beef jerky
and lots of chocolate. The team would get back to camp
before 6 p.m., fuel the snowmobiles, catalog and record the
meteorites of the day, melt ice for water, cook dinner and
read a book or play a game before trying to get a good
night's sleep. "Being out in the cold constantly takes a
lot out of you, and you need lots of sleep," Chabot said.
Temperatures were generally 14 to minus-4 degrees
Fahrenheit, without wind chill considerations.
Even with the inherent hazards and obstacles, the
scientists say the trip is worth the risks. "It's such a
unique opportunity," Chabot said. "You deal with being
cold, being dirty and other hardships. But when you go
outside and look around, it's so beautiful, it just puts
everything else into perspective."
This article first appeared in The APL News. Its
writer, Haley Brown, served as an intern in APL's Office of
Communications and Public Affairs.