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Meteorites search blog

In autumn 2006, meteorite curator Caroline Smith and meteorite researcher Gretchen Benedix, travelled to the Nullabor Desert in western Australia to search for meteorites.

Read their blog to see what they found and learn more about life as a meteorite hunter.

The golden pipeline

Gretchen, Monday 2 October 2006

Yesterday, Sunday, we drove to Kalgoorlie – about 580km from Perth, which took us about seven hours. The road follows a large pipe through which fresh water flows to Kalgoorlie from Perth. This pipe, called the Golden Pipeline, was finished in 1903, within a few years of Kalgoorlie being established as a town.

Great Eastern Highway with the Golden Pipeline on the left © Gretchen Benedix

Great Eastern Highway with the Golden Pipeline on the left © Gretchen Benedix

Along the way we stopped in Southern Cross for petrol – it’s a small town where all the streets are named after stars or constellations. Very nifty for a geek like me!

Fireballs and lightning

Caroline, Friday 29 September 2006

This dramatic image was taken by one of the cameras in the Desert Fireball Network that we’ll be visiting in the Nullabar. The white streak across the bottom of the picture is a meteorite fireball, shooting across the sky in the middle of an electrical storm. Less than ten of the 32,000 or so known meteorites have their falls recorded by camera or video.

Electrical storm and fireball captured on camera © Phil Bland

Electrical storm and fireball captured on camera © Phil Bland

As well as looking for meteorites, one of our most important tasks will be to check that the cameras are working correctly, and fix any problems that we find.

Almost there

Gretchen, Thursday 28 September 2006

Today’s been very exciting. We picked up one of the 4-wheel-drives we will be taking into the field – it has a snorkel! This allows it to draw in air to the engine from roof level rather than road level, which helps to keep the engine cool as well as making it easier to cross water.

We then went to an amazing camping store where Caroline and I picked out some Swags - Australian outback single person tents - and other essentials for the field.

We ended up having dinner with some friends of Phil’s at a restaurant on the Swan River with a fantastic view of Perth at night (and during the day, for that matter). What a great view to end the day with!

More soon from the field. We have tomorrow and Saturday still in Perth with a few more things to pick up, but mostly we are ready to go. Just need to pack everything into the 4-wheel-drive and set out for Kalgoorlie.

Planning, more meteorites – and footie


Today we went to pick up one of our 4-wheel drive vehicles and then set off to buy a load of gear at a camping and outdoor shop. Our meteorite search is really becoming more of a reality!

After that, we paid a visit to David Vaughan, who is a rock and mineral expert and a great friend of Phil Bland, our colleague from Imperial College in London, and Alex’s. He showed us some AMAZING samples of different rocks and minerals and also some great slices of the Mundrabilla meteorite. We had a great time talking shop and discussing the different rocks and meteorites.

We are heading out to the field on Sunday, so on Friday and Saturday we have a bit more organising and shopping to do, but we do also get some free time to do tourist things.

We’re going to Fremantle on Friday, and then on Saturday I’m going to watch the Australian Football League final – like the FA cup final in England – at Nardi’s house. Everyone in Perth is very excited because the local team, the West Coast Eagles are in the final this year. Lots of the local shops and pubs are flying the team flag and colours (blue and gold) and there’s a great atmosphere building up.

Nardi says that Saturday will be amazing, so I’m looking forward to watching it with a load of her friends – hopefully they will be able to explain the rules and I’ll be cheering the Eagles along with them!

Here we are in Perth

Gretchen, Wednesday 27 September 2006

We arrived here on Monday, and met up with Phil Bland at the airport. Phil’s our colleague from Imperial College who’ll be joining us on the search for meteorites. He’d flown direct from London and so was feeling a bit more jet lag that we were. We got to our respective hotels in Perth on that night and settled in for a not-so-restful night’s sleep.

On Tuesday I also met Martin Towner, the other member of our meteorite search. He’s from the Open University in Milton Keynes and he too had arrived on Monday night.

Caroline and I then went to have lunch with Professor Alex Bevan, from the Western Australia Museum where he’s the meteorite curator/researcher. I had corresponded with him when I was a PhD student in Hawaii, so it was very nice to finally meet him in person.

Gretchen with the Mundrabilla meteorite © Gretchen Benedix

Gretchen with the Mundrabilla meteorite © Gretchen Benedix

I returned to the Museum this morning and spent quite a bit of time looking at their meteorite exhibit. One of the most exciting things for me was to be able to see the main mass (the largest piece) of the Mundrabilla iron meteorite. I worked on this meteorite for my PhD – it’s one of the largest meteorites on display in any museum in the world.

Some Australian meteorites


Today we went to the Western Australian Museum to visit Professor Alex Bevan. Alex is the Meteorite Curator there, though he used to do my job at the Natural History Museum.

During our visit we discussed the different aspects of our trip and Alex showed us around their meteorite vault. Although the Western Australian Museum has fewer different meteorites than we do at the Natural History Museum (they have about 200, we have about 2000), they do have some amazing samples and I was quite envious!

Caroline with the Mundrabilla meteorite © Caroline Smith

Caroline with the Mundrabilla meteorite © Gretchen Benedix

One of their star specimens in the Mundrabilla meteorite, which is so big that they have to keep it outside. It weighs 12.4 tonnes and you can see how big it is from these pictures that Gretchen and I took. That is the first time I have ever been able to sit on a meteorite!

We’ve arrived in Australia!

Caroline, Tuesday 26 September 2006

We flew to Perth on Monday morning and had another good flight – on Qantas this time. While we were in the air we saw some of the volcanoes in Indonesia and also a few thunder storms – the pilots had to fly around them to avoid too much turbulence!

We had to go through strict checks when we arrived, to make sure that we weren’t bringing anything into Australia that could damage the native flora and fauna. Because of its geography and the fact that it has been an isolated continent for so long, Australia has developed many unique species - koalas, kangaroos and the like. It could play havoc with the native species if people were to bring in plants or animals which then escaped or otherwise affected the local environment.

Perth is a lovely city. We’ve been very lucky with the weather, which is great for spring (it is spring here at the moment). It’s been warm, not too hot and very sunny.

Today, I met up with my friend Nardi, who used to live in London and moved back to Perth last year. She took me on a tour of the city, visiting Kings Park and also Cottesloe Beach.

Kings Park is the main park in Perth and there are great views across the city. There are lots of trails and paths in the park, as well as a huge range of plants and flowers.

Cottesloe Beach is about 15 minutes drive from the city and is a beautiful white sand beach. It is very popular with surfers and there were quite a few people surfing whilst we were there. I went paddling in the ocean and it was very cold – much colder than I expected and much, much colder than the sea around Singapore! I don’t think I will be going swimming while I’m here!

We’re on our way

Gretchen, Sunday 24 September 2006

Here we are in Singapore! I’m relieved not to be feeling too bad - usually, when travelling east I get the worst jet lag, but we had a fantastic night’s sleep on the flight. Still, it’s always a bit of a shock to the body to fly this far.

Singapore’s really interesting. It’s East Asian and tropical and reminds me very much of Hawaii, where I spent four years at the university getting my PhD. The food’s great and it’s interesting to note how clean everything is.

We spent some time in Orchard Street, the big shopping area, where many of the stores were very familiar (including a Marks & Spencer).

But we spent most of our time wandering along Changi Beach, near our hotel. Again, it reminded me of Hawaii, even down to the fragrance of the orchids, plumeria and other flowers, as well as the beaches.

Tomorrow we’re heading off to Perth, to get ready for hunting the meteorites

First stop, Singapore

Caroline, Saturday 23 September 2006

We left London last Thursday and it seems like ages ago! We flew out to Singapore first, on our way to Perth. We were lucky enough to get free flights with British Airways, through their conservation scheme. It was a long flight – more than 12 hours – but it was very pleasant, especially as we were in Club Class seats!

Orchids outside our hotel in Sinagpore © Caroline Smith

Orchids outside our hotel in Sinagpore © Caroline Smith

We arrived in Singapore late on Friday afternoon. It was quite hot (over 30°C) and very humid. Singapore Airport is very nice and we got through immigration, collected our bags and out to our hotel within an hour of landing. The hotel’s in a place called Changi Village, which is very picturesque, with lots of trees and colourful plants and flowers, including fabulous orchids like the one pictured above. Near the hotel there are lots of green parrots, which we see most in the afternoons. There’s also a beach which we’ve visited a few times.

Changi Beach, Singapore © Caroline Smith

Changi Beach, Singapore © Caroline Smith

Changi has an interesting, though sad history. In the Second World War there was an Allied prisoner of war camp here, during the occupation of Singapore by the Japanese. It was then the site of a massacre, and the sand is reported to have run red with the blood of the people who were killed. Some of the prison camp is still standing and it has been turned into a museum and monument to the prisoners who were here.

Now the village is a popular destination for Singaporeans and tourists alike. There are lots of restaurants where you can get all sort of food for very reasonable prices. Singapore is a very diverse country, with people from many SE Asian and other countries living here. As a result, the food and culture is very varied. However, because Singapore used to be a British colony, English is still one of the four official languages and the majority of the road names and so on are in English. Orchard Road (pictured here) is the biggest shopping street and has loads of shops and shopping centres.

Orchard Road, Sinagpore © Caroline Smith

Orchard Road, Singapore © Caroline Smith

We’ve spent three days here, which has given us a welcome chance to recover from the flight and the jetlag, as well as giving us the opportunity to see a bit of the place.

Tomorrow we’re off to Perth, and our meteorite trip will really begin.

Australia here I come

Gretchen, Thursday 21 September 2006

I’m very excited to be going to the Nullarbor desert. My previous meteorite hunting experience has been in the Antarctic (a frozen desert), but to prepare for this trip, I’ve had to rethink everything I know about desert camping. Conditions in the Antarctic are very different to those we’ll experience in Australia. The biggest difference, of course, is the temperature. For this trip, I won’t need to take along all my woolly winter clothes; just a good sleeping bag and regular hiking boots.

Gretchen on a meteorite trip to the Antarctic

Gretchen on a meteorite trip to the Antarctic.

Most of the gear we need is already in a storage locker in Perth. We’ll gather it all together when we get there, and make sure that nothing needs to be replaced or repaired. After that, we’ll get a day or two of rest before we head out into the desert.

While we’re in Australia, we’re also going to be shooting a video for a Nature Live presentation on meteorite hunting, which will be presented at the Museum in December. I’ve acquired a video camera and have had some preliminary training and advice. Stay tuned for this Nature Live program, which will also be webcast.

Caroline has summed up how busy we’ve both been getting ready for this trip to search for meteorites. As well as all the paperwork we’ve had to fill out, we’ve also had to have medicals to make sure we’re in tip-top shape for working in such a harsh environment. We both passed with flying colours!

Since returning from travels to conferences I’ve also spent much of my time getting a variety of research projects to a point where I can leave them for a few weeks. This included writing an abstract for a meeting in San Francisco in December.

I just can’t wait to get out there and start looking for meteorites.