Interview with Sara Russell, Head of Meteoritics and Cosmic Mineralogy. Sara has spent three summers collecting meteorites in Antarctica. Find out what is involved.
Antarctica is the best place in the world to find meteorites. Ninety per cent of all meteorites found have come from Antarctica. This is because the cold, dry Antarctic weather conditions preserve meteorites well and they are also easy to spot on the ice.
The expedition is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Smithsonian and the National Space Centre and takes place every year. They ask for volunteers who can identify meteorites and volunteers come from all over the world.
Most meteorites are from asteroids that come from the early solar system and we can use them to find out what the Earth was made from. Martian meteorites are special because we don't have any Martian rocks from any of the missions to Mars.
About to start the meteorite search
First, I flew to Christchurch in New Zealand where I waited for the Hercules flight to Antarctica. I spent a week at McMurdo, which is a large research station in Antarctica. Then I flew out to the campsite.
We camped in areas near mountains as this is where meteorites are most often found. When a glacier collides with a mountain, rock and ice is exposed and is further eroded by strong winds, revealing many meteorites at the surface.
A group of us line up and search up and down an area, either walking or on a snowmobile. Sometimes we find lots and it's a bit like being on an Easter egg hunt.
Collecting meteorites in Antarctica © Ralph Harvey
I have to get up close. When a meteorite comes through the atmosphere the edges get smoothed. The surface melts and goes shiny. If the meteorite is chipped, you can see inside and it looks different to normal rocks.
We mark the meteorite’s position and write a description. If we touch the meteorite, we will contaminate it, so we use sterilised tongs to put it into a sterilised bag.
One highlight was finding a meteorite from the moon. Most come from asteroids and so a lunar one is rare. It is really distinctive and we could tell straight away.