Busy, Busy, Busy

Andy Smedley | 20 Aug 2019

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog over the summer, but behind the scenes preparations are well and truly underway for the upcoming field season. We’re all working towards a shipping date at the end of the August so that the equipment can be in Antarctica for November. The metal detecting electronics have been revised, curation kit assembled, risk assessments completed, packing is imminent and we’ve been going through a final couple of rounds of field testing.

The field site we use in the Peak District is close to a pleasant, but relatively unknown, town called Whaley Bridge. Unknown, that is, until the other week, when for a few days it become national headline news. As residents were evacuated due to the threat of the potential collapse of the Toddbrook Reservoir dam, the town was shut down while emergency repairs were carried out. This led to the rather surreal experience of carrying out field work as a Chinook helicopter passed back and forth dropping aggregate and sand bags to stabilise the dam.

Considering that a couple of the project team members houses are directly downstream and right next to the river, our field site provided a useful vantage point to find out whether their houses would be inundated!

Click to listen to Geoff’s thoughts

Field testing in Whaley Bridge.
Final adjustments to the electronics.
An unusual view from the field site — a Chinook approaches the damaged Toddbrook reservoir dam.
The Chinook prepares to drop sandbags to stabilise the dam.

Farewell Svalbard

Geoff Evatt | 18 Mar 2019

Hello, and hopefully soon, goodbye, from Svalbard. I say this as our return flight back to Longyearbyen has just been cancelled due to the gale-force blizzard going on outside the door… (If we fly tomorrow instead, then things should still be OK for returning to the UK — apologies if any of my lectures are missed as a consequence!).

Long evenings. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
A view across Kongsfjorden; in the foreground the airship mast used during the 1926 Norge expedition to the North Pole. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Anyhow, we’ve had an excellent trip, and been looked after brilliantly by the base manager Nick (thank you!). The present weather aside, we’ve had an fantastic run of things, where we’ve been out conducting field trials for 8 days solid with our metal detector array. Only on the last afternoon did the the storm start to come in, just whilst we were clearing the test site up, which added a thrill to things. I think we’re now in agreement that the system will likely detect 100 gram iron meteorites down to 20 cm in real-time, and finding smaller and/or deeper objects will require post-processing back in the tents after a day’s searching (in so doing, we won’t be distracted by the system constantly pinging due to background noise, and we’ll only get off the skidoos to investigate the largest signals). Should we locate iron meteorites much larger than 100 grams, then we’ll also find them in real-time at much deeper depths. This is all testament to our engineers Liam, Wouter and John, who have designed, built, and tinkered with the system over the past couple of years, and who are likewise trapped with me in the Arctic base.

Manual labour to start the day. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
The northern lights or aurora borealis. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
Reindeer in front of the Kronebreen glacier. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
The Svalbard 2019 team.

As you will see from the images, the bitter cold we’ve had for most of the trip has been tempered by the stunning conditions. And the northern lights we saw two nights ago really capped the trip off well. As for wildlife, then only reindeer and seals this year, with no polar bears for distraction. That said, having the BBC’s Today Programme up here acted to keep us continually interested in what was going on around us, and many thanks to them for putting together their news-piece on our project, which can be listened to here:


Liam and I were particularly pleased about this, as it’s not often two New Mills residents feature so prominently on the news! And in case you are interested, my project colleagues back in the UK, Andy and Dave, plus myself, set four of the Arctic-themed “Puzzles for Today” this week, which can be found here (puzzle numbers 434-437):


It’s strange to think that the next time the system will be used in the cold will be down in Antarctica, where discussions as to exactly where we head to, and how much area we’re likely to search, are now well underway. In the mean-time, further equipment tinkering and engineering will commence back in Manchester, where the big deadline for shipping things South is mid-August.

All-in-all, we now have the two key components of the project together: we know where on the continent to search, and we have built the equipment capable of detecting englacial iron meteorites. The proof of whether they are actually lost within the ice, will now be in the pudding!

Goodbye Svalbard. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Svalbard: an unusual field trial

Geoff Evatt | 14 Mar 2019
Hello from Svalbard [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Good evening from 79º North (more informally: that’s very far North). It’s freezing. Proper freezing: –20ºC air temperature, plus a hint of moist wind, and with a sun barely popping over the surrounding mountain tops. And just before I left the house to fly here (whilst doing my last-second packing), I realised that I had left most of my thermal clothes on a washing line down in Antarctica in January……..

The view on arrival at Ny- Ålesund [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Anyhow, things are progressing here in somewhat a slightly unusual manner. This is because we have a team from the BBC working from here as well (for the Today programme on Radio 4), who are darting around  compiling stories about research and life conducted up here. And also because there is a team from the UK Research Councils who are also darting around, making sure the BBC people don’t slip up — in both senses. It’s great and fascinating to have the BBC guys here, who have shown genuine interest in matters, and we’re utterly impressed by how hard they work. As we await for the programme’s live broadcast tomorrow morning, where some tedious Brexit story will likely supplant our (we like to think) far more interesting meteorite story, we do have the consolation prize that we’ve set the last two Puzzles for Today on their programme.

Liam, John and Wouter setting up the metal detectors [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

As for the meteorite project: things are going rather well (I say this even as John, Liam and Wouter stand 2m away from me studying a severely broken metal detector). This is because we’re getting excellent and repeatable results from our main metal detector, where we’re ‘seeing’ objects being detected in real time at the depths we hope to find the meteorites, across a range of skidoo speeds. The one big caveat however is that ‘down’ South we’ll be searching over solid glacial ice, whereas ‘up’ North we’re testing over soft fresh snow. The former has the potential to give more vibrations to the system than the snow, and, if not accounted for,  has the potential to swamp meteorite signals.

Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus) [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

As for the wildlife? There’s a couple of Svalbard reindeer hanging around the camp, but the Arctic foxes from last year seem to have moved on. Maybe this will change shortly, as sunlight is increasing by almost 25 minutes a day at the moment!

We’ll be back in touch with the latest Brexit, I mean meteorite, update, later in the week.

Svalbard: first day in the field

— Liam Marsh | 09 Mar 2019

Today has been a busy day for the team here in Svalbard. We were accompanied by Henry Burgess from the NERC Arctic Office as we spent out first day in the field setting up the test site for the next few days of testing. The test area is approximately six times larger than the one we used when we were here last year; this time we have an overall track length of around 200m, and a width which is capable of accommodating three panels.

The test site near Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard [Credit: Liam Marsh]

We have placed 20 dummy meteorites at seven different depths throughout the test area, which is sufficient for testing one detector. As the trial continues, we will place a further 19 which will allow us to test all three. Each pair of flags/poles in the image below represents target locations, which have all been carefully positioned and buried (some requiring quite a lot of excavation!) It was slow going, and hard work, but thankfully here on Svalbard there is always a very nice view waiting when we get the chance to look up and enjoy it.

Tomorrow morning we will be getting the equipment outside for the first time. We will be accompanied by the team from BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, who are here to find out about NERC, BAS, and the UK’s involvement in Arctic research; including the Lost Meteorites of Antarctica. We plan to test a single detector, with the main aim of determining the sensitivity of the detector to the dummy meteorites, characterising the vibration associated with dragging the detector system, and testing of the user interface.

‘Dummy’ meteorites before being buried at the test site. [Credit Wouter van Verre]

Tomorrow evening we expect to be joined by our University of Manchester colleague, and Lost Meteorites PI, Geoff Evatt. Sadly for him, if all goes to plan he will arrive to find us having completed a full set of measurements and facing a day indoors processing all the data. As the week progresses there will be plenty more work to do as we tweak the system and scale up to the three detectors that we have with us.

Svalbard: indoor testing of the detector system

Liam Marsh | 09 Mar 2019

On day two of our time here in Ny-Alesund we have been making good progress. Much of the morning was taken up with further administration, covering both firearms training and coordination of the testing plans and media coverage of the activities taking place here at the NERC base. We did get time to conduct a small amount of testing or the response of two of our three metal detectors with meteorite surrogates, and the initial results were looking promising. We also undertook a significant amount of indoor vibration testing, which the system dealt with better than we had expected; this produced so much banging and crashing that the BBC Radio 4 Today team became curious of what was going on and stopped by for a brief interview.

When we resumed testing in the afternoon we experienced some difficulties in integrating the three detectors. It took a few hours but we managed to make the necessary software tweaks to get the hardware to behave properly. As we reach the end of the day we are at the stage where all three detectors are operational, and we have some initial configuration for outdoor testing of the system.

Tomorrow morning (Sunday) we intend to go out into the field to set up the test site, and all being well (after some further minor tweaks tomorrow afternoon) we should be heading out for some initial detector testing on Monday morning.

Svalbard field campaign 2019 begins

Our field campaign in Svalbard to undertake the final testing of our metal detector panels has kicked off.   Here is the first update from our University of Manchester electronic engineering team, who have arrived the British Antarctic Survey’s UK Arctic Research Station.

Liam Marsh | 09 Mar 2019

Myself and fellow electrical engineers, John Wilson and Wouter van Verre arrived here in Ny-Alesund earlier this morning after a brief overnight stop in Longyearbyen. The flight from Longyearbyen was extremely smooth, and had its fantastic views of sea ice, glaciers and the rugged terrain that exists here in Svalbard. At one point in the the four flights it took us to get here, 3 out of our 5 bags were lost; against all odds all of our bags made it here in the end. None of us fancied conducting a field trial at –20 °C without the appropriate clothes to keep us warm, however, it would have been equally challenging without the equipment we were here to test.  

As is customary on arrival in Ny-Alesund there has been a lot of administration. Wouter was sent off to do the rifle training that is needed to keep us safe from polar bears, whilst myself, John and fellow scientist Arwen were dispatched to collect the 9 skidoos for the team, owing to the fact that we were the only people trained to use them having visited previously. It is quite a busy time to visit, as we are accompanied by a team from BBC Radio 4 Today show (who will be broadcasting from here all of next week), a microbiologist from Aberystwyth University, and staff from NERC and BAS — including our station leader Nick G — who is doing an excellent job of standing in for the the regular station leader Nick Cox.

For a while it felt like things were stacked against us when we found out that our two 12 V batteries (which are necessary to power our system) were discharged to a point very close to which they would be unchargeable, but thankfully it looks like we got here just in time to resurrect them. Since then things have been going a  lot better. We set up our equipment in the lab and have tested three metal detectors, and three coil panels and everything is working well. There is still some tuning needed to get the optimal sensitivity, however the response to our meteorite surrogates looks quite good and the system is showing excellent signs of resilience to vibration. The real acid test will be when we get the system outside on Sunday/Monday…

Field trials start indoors: detector panels in and electronic boxes our lab space in BAS’s Ny-Ålesund arctic research station. [Credit: Liam Marsh]

Answering some questions from Beth

Many thanks to Beth from class 6R at Nottingham Girl’s High School for sending in some great questions from her class and her teacher about the Antarctic meteorite field work we did this season to look for meteorites. I have tried to answer them below. Thanks for your interest Beth and your class, and hope that you get to visit and work in Antarctica some day in the future.

Best wishes,


P. S. There are some amazing women working at the British Antarctic Survey that I got to meet – from being a pilot, to an aircraft engineer, to a field guide, to being a base commander in charge of the station, a chef, being in charge of science cargo logistics, or a communications expert – there are lots of jobs to be done working at the research bases, on one of the ships, or out in the remote field. You can also find out more about some of BAS’s polar women scientists and what they do here.


1) What is your actual job title?

  • My job title – that is complicated as I seem to have a few! My university (the University of Manchester) calls me a Royal Society University Research Fellow as am funded by an organisation in London called the Royal Society to do scientific research. I am also called a ‘Reader’ which is sort of like a university teacher who also does research (sadly I don’t do as much reading as I would like though so the job title is a bit odd!). I would also call myself a lunar scientist as I mostly study the Moon, and a meteoriticist as I study meteorites from outer space. It shows you can have a few job titles being a scientist and not really know which one fits best.


2) What sort/how many meteorites did you find?

  • On our field trip to Antarctica this year we think we have found at least 36 meteorites, which is a good number to find. We will double check this when we get all the rock samples back to Manchester later this summer and can start to analyse them and check what type of samples they are. From some initial tests that we do in the field when we collect them I think that most are likely to have come from different types asteroids – but you never know, and when we have checked them more carefully I hope we might have one from the Moon or Mars.

One of the meteorites we collected on our expedition sitting in the snow. The rock is about 20 cm long. We know it is a meteorite as it has a black coloured exterior and we can see structures inside that look different from Earth rocks (Image: K. Joy).


3) Did you stay in the building on skis or just work there?

  • When we first get to Antarctica we stay in buildings that look more like normal houses (called Rothera) and then we traveled onto the building with skies (called Halley). These are both permanent research bases that are run by the British Antarctic Survey.
  • At Rothera research station, which is located on the Antarctic peninsula, there are about 120-160 people living and working there in the summer months (in UK winter time) and in the Antarctic winter (in UK summer time) there is about 25 people living there. There are several buildings including accommodation blocks (we share rooms between two people), a lovely big building with a cafeteria, a library and a TV room, a building with offices for people to work on their science projects and to monitor the Antarctic weather, an aircraft hangar so they can maintain and repair the planes we use, and workspace for waste disposal and recycling and for vehicle repairs.

Buildings and runway at the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera research station (Image: K. Joy)


  • The station called Halley, which is the building with skies we visited, is a really cool looking structure – it is made up of several different modules that all have different functions – from a command centre and accommodation rooms, to a field work preparation zone, to an area with a table tennis area and some nice chairs to relax. The neat design is that when there is a lot of snow the whole structure can pick up its feet one by one and step itself up to a higher level to get out of the snow! It can also travel across the snow if it needs to, to move to a completely new area (it last did so in the year 2017).  This year we worked in the building to prepare our field equipment, and to speak to the people who predicted the weather forecast so that we could leave to fly out to our field site.

Colourful red and blue modules at Halley research station – you enter through an airlock like heavy door which makes you think you are entering a space station (Image: K. Joy).


4) What were the cabins like that you stayed in?

  • At Halley I stayed in a little cabin called a caboose – it was very cosy and warm and had four beds and a little table and chairs area. I was on the top bunk bed so had to climb up to get in and out which was quite interesting as I am not as good as climbing as I used to be!
  • When we were in the field doing our work to find meteorites we stayed in orange coloured tents with two people in a tent.

Little cabins called cabooses that are used for extra accommodation at Halley research station.

Our field tent home and camping equipment (Image: K. Joy)


5) Where exactly in Antarctica were you? Did you get to the Pole?

  • We visited an area about 600 km or so from the coast, at an altitude of 1100 m above sea level. It was quite a flat region, but we could see mountain ranges around to give a sense of scale.

The mountain range look close, but they were about 70 km away (Image: K. Joy).

  • On this 2018-2019 field trip I did not get to visit the South Pole – it was about 900 km south of where we were staying. However, on the last trip to Antarctica I did when I was helping out an American meteorite research team, I was very lucky and did get to visit the South Pole for a few days, which was really cool. At the South Pole there are actually two poles there which is odd – one is the real South Pole geographic location site and the other one is the ceremonial one they have surrounding by flags for good photo opportunities. I made sure that I walked around both of them for good measure to say I have been there. Incidentally, in November later this year people will celebrate the 50th anniversary of when women visited the South Pole for the first time (you can read more about this here).

Katie at the geographical South Pole back in in January 2013 when she was a team member of the American Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program (Image: KJoy/ANSMET)


6) What was the temperature during the day/night?

  • Most of the time in the daytime it was between about -5 degrees centigrade and -10 degrees centigrade, but a few times it got as chilly as -20 C. What made it worse was when the wind blew, and it felt a lot colder with ‘wind chill’ than the thermometer told us. At night when we were there it never really got dark, but it did get a few degrees colder as the light levels dropped.
  • You have to make sure that you are wearing enough layers in these temperatures to work for a long period of time – when I went out I had five pairs of trousers on (thermals, thick thermals, a fleece layer, thin down trousers, and thick salopettes), on my feet were very thick boots that had a protective plastic sole and a removable insulated liner, and on top I wore a vest, a thermal layer, a thick thermal layer, a thin down jacket, an insulated layer, a thick jumper and a big protective out layer), and I wore a face mask to protect my face from the wind and cold! I looked a bit like the Michelin man, but it kept me warm.

Katie wearing lots of warm layers, gloves and her protective facemask, with a meteorite on the ice (Image: K. Joy)

7) How close did you get to the penguins?

  • I got about 5 to 20 m away from the penguins. You cant get too close as you don’t want to disturb the penguins and we want them to stay relaxed in their home environment. Once I saw three penguins going for a walk along the plane runway which was pretty funny, although they loved across pretty quickly as I think they are used to aircraft traffic coming through!

Penguins having a walk at Rothera (Image: K. Joy)


8) Do you know what breed of penguins they were?

  • The penguins I saw were called Adele penguins – they are very cute at about 60 cm in height and are one of seven types that occur in Antarctica. I normally saw them in pairs, or in a group of three sitting alongside the coastline. Every time I saw one I still got excited – it doesn’t really ever get boring to spot one 🙂

    Adele penguins close to Rothera (Image K. Joy).