Antarctica could be key to unlocking secrets of solar system as experts hunt meteorites

Iron meteorites are hidden beneath the sheet of snow and ice on the most southerly continent, which is why experts will spend over a month there looking for the small pieces of metal. The small lumps of iron represent the early remnants of the solar system and small objects which failed to form into planets. As the meteorites hit the ground, they are still piping hot from where they collided with the atmosphere, melting the snow around them as they land on the ground.

The Antarctic has been a hotspot for meteorite hunters, with more than two thirds of the total number of meteorites collected being found there.

One of the reasons the location has become so popular is because meteorites’ dark colouring stands out against the white snow, which makes them easy to detect.

Additionally, ice flow in Antarctica takes meteorites and naturally and gradually transports them to concentrated areas known as meteorite stranding zones (MSZ).

Another reason the Antarctic is the perfect place to search is that beneath the snow, the meteorites are protected from weather conditions, which help preserve them better.

Researchers from the University of Manchester will spend six weeks at the south pole where they will search for iron meteorites.

The team will be analysing a 15 to 20km square region of Antarctica, mainly looking beneath the surface.

However, there have been few iron-rich meteorites found in the region but the team from the University of Manchester thinks they have figured out why not many iron-rich meteorites have been found there.

They say these meteorites are more prone to conducting heat from the sun’s rays, in comparison with non-metallic ones, which causes them to melt the ice around them and subsequently burying them in ice and snow once they have been transported to an MSZ.

The team says that for meteorite hunters looking for iron-rich meteorites in Antarctica, they should be looking 10 to 50cm below the surface.

Meteoriticist Katherine Joy told Live Science: “This group of meteorites have an intrinsic scientific interest in that they tell us how small bodies formed and evolved in the early part of solar system history — around 4.5 billion years ago.

“Meteorites are well preserved on the ice and have not been too altered by frequent rainfall, which can partially contaminate them elsewhere.

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“Being dark in colour, they are also easy to spot against the white ice surface.”

University of Manchester mathematician Geoff Evatt added: “We have hypothesised that these iron meteorites are lying just underneath the surface of the ice out of sight.

“Hopefully, we can find some this season by using a metal-detector based approach.”

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