Researchers combing the surface of Antarctica for space rocks hit the jackpot by finding five meteorites in the tundra, one of which weighs almost 17 pounds.
The expedition team found the meteorites sitting on top of the snow in Antarctica, where the rocks’ black bodies stuck out against the white snow fields of the continent. Antarctica is an ideal place to find relatively undisturbed space rocks, since its dry climate prevents excess weathering over time. Maria Valdes, a research scientist with the Field Museum and the University of Chicago, and her team found a total of five meteorites during their hunt in December, one of which weighs 16.7 pounds (7.6 kilograms).
“Size doesn’t necessarily matter when it comes to meteorites, and even tiny micrometeorites can be incredibly scientifically valuable,” said Valdes in a statement. “But of course, finding a big meteorite like this one is rare, and really exciting.”
Valdes estimates that, out of the tens of thousands of meteorites that have been found in Antarctica, only around 100 are as large as the one her team found. To find the meteorites, the researchers rode on snow mobiles and walked in areas that were previously mapped and identified through satellite imagery as potential landing spots for meteorites. When the team found a suspected meteorite, they used a handheld tool to test the magnetic properties of the rock, Valdes explained in an email to Gizmodo. While most of these meteorites stay on the surface, even those that sink into the ice will reemerge as glaciers shift and move.
“Going on an adventure exploring unknown areas is exciting,” said Vinciane Debaille, a member of the research team from Université Libre de Bruxelles, in a statement. “But we also had to deal with the fact that the reality on the ground is much more difficult than the beauty of satellite images.”
While the find is exciting, the next step for the scientists is to determine what the meteorites can tell us about the universe. The five rocks Valdes and her team found with be analyzed at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, while soil samples from the area will be analyzed by the team themselves.