The Quest to Solve the Mystery of Antarctica's 'Lost Meteorites'

A meteorite on the Antarctic surface. brookpeterson/Flickr

Antarctica is every meteorite hunter's happy place. Dark-colored space rocks stick out like a sore thumb on the ice-covered, undisturbed landscape, and upward-flowing ice regularly dumps buried rocks onto the surface. It's where two-thirds of all the world's meteorites have been found.

It's strange, then, that iron-based meteorites — some of the most coveted forms of meteorite — occur in lower concentrations in Antarctica than in most other places on Earth. For some mysterious reason, only 0.7 percent of the meteorites collected in Antarctica are iron-based (compared to 5.5 percent in the rest of the world).

There's no reason that iron-based meteorites shouldn't fall just as often in Antarctica, so that disparity presents something of a mystery. Where are the continent's lost meteorites?

That's what a special team of researchers with the British Antarctic Survey aim to find out. Their quest to scour the world's least-explored continent for these lost meteorites has been approved, and it could reveal untold secrets about the origins of our solar system.

"We now have the opportunity to commence on a truly exciting scientific adventure," said expedition leader Dr. Geoffrey Evatt in a press release from the University of Manchester.

What we can learn from iron meteorites

The reason iron meteorites are so coveted is that they're believed to form in the cores of planetesimals, the small planets that buzz around in the early days of a solar system when planetary collisions are commonplace. As the planetesimals collide, they splinter into chunks, some of which still survive in the form of meteorites that fall to Earth.

This is why studying the composition and age of these meteorites can tell scientists so much about how planets are formed, and ultimately how the solar system evolved — because they're originally from planetary cores.

The working hypothesis about where these special meteorites have gone has to do with their metallic makeup. Their heavy iron content and dark color means they can heat up rapidly in the Antarctic sun, and thus melt the ice around them. This ought to make them sink into the ice and eventually get buried by newly fallen layers.

If the hypothesis holds up, then there should be a sparsely distributed layer of these meteorites just a few centimeters beneath the surface, out of sight. So the research team's plan is to spread out and scan the landscape with high-tech metal detectors specially designed for the task. The technology will be tested on the Arctic island of Svalbard next year before the team embarks on its Antarctic quest in 2020.

Of course, if the team fails to locate the lost meteorites, the mystery will only deepen. But mystery is what lies at the heart of science. Even if the team's hypothesis fails, it will make way for a new one.

It's an exciting adventure, one that looks beyond just the mystery of these tiny missing space rocks and promises to divulge clues about the grandest space rocks of them all: the planets.