A productive few days out and about

Katie Joy | 16 Jan 2020

Although most of the team are now heading north back to the UK, Taff and I are still working hard at our field site and it’s been a productive and busy few days out in the field as we wrap up the season with some surface meteorite searching on two of the ice fields that we visited last year. Revisiting sites is interesting as some of our old tracks are still preserved as imprints in the snow patches like fossilised tracks, indicating past exploration. Both areas are much clearer of fresh snow now than last year (though they still have some thicker patches of older snow), and as there has been less wind it has been pleasant getting out and about and systematically covering the ground to try and find as many samples as possible.

Meteorite sample encased within ice. Just the top portion was poking out and we had to dig the rest of the sample out. [Credit: Katie Joy]

We managed to collect seven samples on the 14th (including a nice big one spotted from about 100 m away), two samples yesterday (rewards for a lot of driving around getting frustrated that we weren’t finding much), and four more today on the 16th (including a nearly completely ice submerged sample), bringing the total number of meteorite stones collected to 82 from this area in total from this year. Several meteorites found over the last few days have been stunning — really nice flight shaped stones preserving evidence of the orientation they travelled through Earth’s atmosphere. A couple others have very fresh fusion crusts suggesting they might be recent falls, and some have hints of pale coloured interiors which look different from the normal chondrite type (primitive asteroid) of samples that we most commonly collect.

We are not sure how many more days we will have in the field as we now await a break in the weather for a plane to travel over from Rothera to collect us — but tea supplies and moral levels are high, and we will keep getting out searching until before our skidoo petrol runs down. Then we will drink some more tea and reflect on a great end to the season.

Cracking ice – as the ice field extends and the ice speeds up it cracks and twists into small faults a few cms wide. We don’t typically find meteorites in areas like this, but sometimes have to drive past and it is like a structural geology lecture in action. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Taff pointing the way to the stunning meteorite (a whole stone) we found today with a rollover lip. [Credit: Katie Joy]

PS Thanks to our Sledge Victor teammates Romain, Geoff and Wouter, and quizmaster K for the amazing sausage roll song rendition over skeds. We didn’t think you would deliver, but you didn’t fail us. Quite magnificent. Who knew there were so many verses to get through. We hope that your travel back to the UK goes well, and see you back Manchester way. 119 is a lot cleaner without you. 🙂

(Still) Chasing Meteorites

Katie Joy | 13 Jan 2020

The remaining team of Taff and Katie are still in the field at Outer Recovery and after two tent days (one because the winds were blowing at 30 knots all day, and yesterday due to bad contrast as it was cloudy) we made it out and about for some more meteorite searching. The high winds of a couple of days ago has blown away all the pretty hoar frost which was covering the area, but also more importantly has shifted the snow off our local ice field meaning that we could get back there to search the final southerly section which had previously been hidden from us under a couple of centimetres of covering.

We headed out in strong cold winds, today was the first day I have had to put on the big yellow down jacket over all the other layers I have been wearing. Pretty much as soon as we started out we were off the mark with a large 15 cm stone, and despite the cold, the day continued to prove fruitful with seven more meteorites collected and bagged*. These included a very nice hand sized complete fusion crusted stone which are pretty uncommon and a tiny pea sized perfect small rounded stone. By the time we headed back to camp the winds had dropped off, making for a pleasant returning home commute.

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A lovely fusion crusted stone sitting on a small crack on the blue ice field. [Credit: Katie Joy].

We are not sure yet of our field retrieval date – but it feels really good to get a few more meteorites collected before we have to return to Rothera.


* Well a small one nearly wasn’t bagged when a gust of wind whipped the meteorite encased in its plastic collection bag away across the ice field — I jumped on the skidoo and whizzed off chasing after it, and upon catching up jumped off the skidoo on a snow patch to make a dive… Well, I missed and fell on my butt (you try running on ice when dressed like the Michelin man), and the bag and stone flew on past me at what I can only assume must be the quickest pace it has experienced since landing on Earth. Back on the skidoo I shot off again, overtook the flying bag again and this time aligned both me and the skidoo to make the interception. Bagged meteorite retrieved and safely stored despite its best attempts to get away. I was feeling pretty cold before this chase episode, but the rapid retrieval and adrenaline shot seemed to have done the trick to warm me up.

Meanwhile in Manchester…

13 Jan 2020

Readers will have seen and read about a lot of goings on “down south” in Rothera and at the Outer Recovery ice fields, and the results of the team’s searches at the field site near the Shackleton Mountains. This is only part of the story (though a key one)!

Back in Manchester the rest of the Lost Meteorites of Antarctica team have been busy, so we thought it only right that we give a brief overview of the work going on behind the scenes. Recently mentioned, Liam and John provided support to Wouter with the technical glitches and have of course been instrumental throughout the project from its initial design, build, lab testing and field testing.

Patches of blue ice at the base of cliffs in the Theron Mountains. Selecting the right spot is key to finding meteorites. [Credit: Romain Tartese]

In parallel with the detector system build, Andy has been working with lots of data analysis (using satellite datasets and climate model outputs) to figure out whereabouts the team was best searching for meteorites. Antarctica is a big place and meteorites are only found in a few spots. Sometimes people head out there to come back empty handed, so we wanted to do our best for last season to make sure we found a “blue ice area” that harboured meteorites. First of all, a selection of candidate sites were tracked down by Katie (before the current project was funded) and then reduced to a long-list of those accessible on a logistics basis with the help of BAS. Then, using a combination of estimates of snowfall (that tells us something about the rate at which meteorites accumulate in a given area), and the local surface ice flow and wind scouring (that tells about the rate of loss of meteorites), we came up with a prediction of what density of meteorites we expected across these candidate sites. That prediction enabled us to refine and rank our preferred areas for Katie to visit last year. Thankfully she and Julie Baum confirmed our estimates and found some meteorites! Once we had decided on particular areas, Andy was involved in making custom maps for the team’s GPSs from hi-res satellite imagery, more detailed estimates of which individual ice fields to return to (from the data and samples Katie collected last year), and the logistics involved in shipping and planning. At the moment he’s the main contact back in Manchester and has been responsible for posting updates sent through by satellite phone while Geoff, Katie, Wouter and Romain have been at the remote field site.

There’s lots of posts about trying to find meteorites on the blog, but once we find them — what happens to them? That job is being undertaken by Jane and Tom working with members of the isotope group.

Well, we’ve made sure the potential meteorites have all been collected following defined procedures to keep them as free from any contamination as possible, for example, they only come into contact with stainless steel equipment used to get them into polythene bags, and every sample is double-bagged. They are even kept at sub-zero temperatures throughout their journey back to the UK, giving us the best chance of keeping them in pristine condition for future science. Jane, working with Katie, Rhian Jones and with folks at the meteorite group at the NHM, has been working out the necessary steps for the preliminary examination plan for classifying the meteorites, to ensure the samples do not get contaminated, and that every stage of examination is thoroughly documented. In line with this, the first ten samples from last season have now been thawed and she is using “CT-scanning” to look inside the rock and get an initial idea of what it is made of, before deciding how to break or cut the sample. Small pieces will then be mounted on glass slides in order to examine them with microscopes so that they can be formally classified into their different classes.

The “light box” set up used to acquire the images for 3D photogrammetry scans. [Credit: Tom Harvey]

Now the first samples from last year’s reconnaissance trip have been defrosted, Tom has been working to scan the fresh sample exteriors with a technique called photogrammetry. Photogrammetry uses information in pictures of a sample (in this case a meteorite) which show overlapping surface features to position that bit of the sample in 3D space — meaning that we can generate an electronic 3D model of the sample! These models are really useful because they preserve a record of the sample exterior prior to analysis (or, if needs be, cutting), and mean that we can zoom in on parts of the surface that are particularly interesting, which is great for curation and initial characterisation purposes and gives a permanent record of what the meteorite looked like when it was found.

And as this post goes online, it sounds like this year’s samples might just be starting to make the long journey back to the UK… holding the promise of lots more interesting science.

And then there were two…

Katie Joy | 10 Jan 2020

It’s been a busy couple of days in the field as we wrap up at the end of the season. As Romain mentioned in his post, two days ago (8th Jan) we started to pack up camp ready for a move back to the skiway input site (about 2 km up the road). We were just settling into a quiet evening when we got a phone call to say that three of the team would be picked up by plane the next day. All hands to stations and we packed up camp that night and relocated so that we could be in place the next day. It was a late one by the time we went to bed, but it was good to know that the main work was out the way. In the morning we got word that the plane (trusty old Victor Bravo Charlie) had left Halley and was winging its way south to us.

The guys in the field before being collected. [Credit: Katie Joy]

Wouter, Geoff, and Romain then headed out with pilot Dave and co-pilot Tom Hulme (who helped out last year as well with our team’s collection from the field — thanks Tom!) towards Rothera, but were diverted on route and ended up last night with our friends at Halley Research Station where they could enjoy a nice warm shower and cooked dinner.

Meanwhile Taff and I have remained in the field ready for the next collection. Taff has been preparing a depot site where we can store the equipment that can’t be uplifted this year. There is a lot of work stacking up of boxes and kit, note taking, rearranging and making sure that everything will not blow away in the Antarctic winter when wind speeds can get up over 60 knots.

This afternoon we took a drive out to visit the southernmost ice field in the area where Julie and I visited last year, finding two meteorites in the process. It was a stunning drive to and from our camp site through flat white terrain, passing by the camp that Wouter, Geoff and Rob had been put into about a month ago. We drove past the remnants of their igloos: they have been dilapidated somewhat in the strong winds and now look like a beautiful ruins. Onwards to the ice field which we discovered was a lot less snow covered than last year, although some parts still had recent snow clinging to the surface. The winds there were much stronger than at camp with a lot of ice blowing along the surface, snaking its way to the west at ~30 knots. Blowy. We searched two of the main parts in a mix of systematic and recon style of search — alas no meteorites were found, but it was an absolute joy to drive around looking.

Remnants of the igloo at the guys original campsite. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Taff driving close to the ice rise at the southern ice field. [Credit: Katie Joy]

The journey back to camp was just as stunning — close to the ice field the wind was blowing hard whipping up and blowing snow, but then as we bridged a hill, it dropped off completely leaving a surface of hoar frost with ice crystals that glinted in the sunlight like a million diamonds. We weaved our way through this glittering landscape, kicking up snow crystals, making it look like the air itself was sparkling.

We await news of our uplift — but for now are enjoying being in this amazing landscape.

Half the team is back at Rothera

— Romain Tartese | 10 Jan 2020

Hi there, quick update to let you know that Wouter, Geoff and myself have made it back to Rothera yesterday evening. On Wednesday evening we were told that the plane was coming to uplift the first 3 people the next day, so it was all a bit of a mad rush to move camp from the blue ice a few kilometres up to the skiway where the plane is able to land. Fortunately we had already started packing some of the kit away — all in all we finished setting up camp at the skiway at around 3am Thursday!

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Packing up camp on the edge of the blue icefield [Credit: R. Tartese]

Pilot Dave and co-pilot Tom arrived around mid-day to pick us up, and soon we were on our way to Rothera. Flying north we had great views over the Shackleton Range — there are loads of blue ice areas there (see photo below), who knows how many meteorites are sitting there at the surface waiting to be picked up…

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Flying north over the Shackleton Range [Credit: R. Tartese]

Antarctica being Antarctica, soon after having passed the Shackleton Range we diverted to Halley rather than Rothera as the weather had degraded over the ice shelf. It was nice to spend a last night in Halley (huge thanks to all the folks there for all their help throughout this project!), and we did make the most of hot shower, which was more than welcome after 4-5 weeks in the field!

We finally managed to get back to Rothera yesterday evening after a nice day flying over the Ronne Ice Shelf and up the Peninsula. Katie and Taff are still in the field, and should be picked up in the coming days. In the meantime, there is a fair bit of laundry to do, sorting out the science kit and getting things ready for being shipped North, and getting some rest!

The end of the sledge (but not the end of the story)…

Geoff Evatt | 08 Jan 2020

Hello from Outer Recovery, where with mixed emotions we bid farewell to our subsurface meteorite detector systems…. yep, today I had the honour of towing the single panel sledge system to the 0.75km2 area searched mark. Shortly after it errored out, a little way from where the 3 panel system finished two days earlier. We’re actually rather proud of the system, after all it did work amazingly well whilst it was working. It was the repairs between operational bouts which was the pain and has taken up our time, effort and energies.  However the undulating ice surface (see pics) took its toll: the accelerometers in the system constantly registering over 10g’s of acceleration!  In all previous testing locations (including last year’s testing on Antarctic blue ice at Sky-Blu) the system experienced always less than 6g’s, and even those were relatively rare occurrences. This constant battering from the ice meant that anything which could fail did, and once repaired as best we could, a weakness in components remained for further exploitation. Yet, the modular system of the detector had the advantage that we could continue in a fashion, and did so for 18 odd days.

Wouter in the expanse of Antarctica. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Fittingly, as I drove the sledge back to camp, I noticed a black dot on the ice. Yep, number 65 for the area this year. A lovely single stone, which even the sledge had a good view of. And best of all, this takes us to 101 samples for the Lost Meteorites project! It thus looks like we have almost certainly collected over 100 meteorites for return to the UK, all ready to be examined for their scientific worth and hopefully put on public display.

A small meteorite next to the now ex-sledge detector system. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

So, did we find the layer of lost meteorites? No, the layer of lost meteorites hasn’t been found by the metal detection system, but we do seem to have found a curious fraction of iron-rich meteorites nonetheless. The immediate consequence being that further laboratory and statistical analysis is required to figure out what this implies. I say this because it raises some interesting questions both about the particular environment of the ice field the team has been searching and how this might effect the processes by which meteorites become exposed upon the ice surface. So not the in-situ grand finale we were hoping for, but equally it is not the end of this particular story…

Geoff and meteorite number 101. [Credit: Katie Joy]

In the meantime there will still be plenty of updates from the field, as we’re planning on collecting some ice samples tomorrow (much easier than collecting meteorite samples) for analysis back in the UK. After that we pack up and move camp back to the runway area, and should fuel allow, we’ll head to another neighbouring blue ice area to see what meteorites reside there. And then we await the planes (around 16th, in theory), and the statistics……

An erratic few days

Katie Joy | 05 Jan 2020

A busy few days for us in the field. We covered a bit more ground with the metal detection panel array system on the main local ice field , but then suffered a few setbacks when the system powered up and down again in a run. Geoff and Wouter had a day of taking everything apart, assessing what was working and not working, and in progress we discovered that the blue sledge (we had nicknamed Sledge Evatt Junior*) that was carrying our control box and battery had a rather large whole in the bottom, which had been allowing snow to enter the base of the sledge dislodging some of the equipment. Needless to say Junior has been now been retired, and we need a name for the new blue sledge which has taken its place (number 3 doesn’t really have a ring to it).

An ice pond next to Halliday ridge: several of the local rocks had clearly sunk into the ice leaving interesting bubble trails during their descent. Alas no meteorites. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Looking along the ridge of Halliday Nunatak. [Credit: Katie Joy]

Whilst all the fixing up has been going on, Romain, Taff and I covered quite a lot of ground surface searching the northern most part of the ice field — finding 7 more meteorite stones throughout the day, including one (a stony type) that was almost completely buried within the ice, only about 10% sticking out of this surface. The clouds lifted and the afternoon was warm and glorious to work in.

Last night we had a good 20 knot wind sweep through the area clearing a lot of the snow off the blue ice surface. We all headed out as a group of five to visit the ice field closest to the Recovery Glacier — a trip of about 10 km from where we are camped. We travelled there linked up on skidoos — forming a caravan of skidoos and sledges trundling across the sastrugi snow heading north for about an hour. BAS fieldguide Julie Baum and I visited this icefield last year (it was the site of my epic skidoo breakdown), and it was good to revisit it. We searched the surface for a while, finding one more meteorite sample (adding to the three we found here last year).

Systematic search on ice. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
Wouter and Taff near Halliday Nunatak. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
Meteorite collection with tongs. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
Geological search on Halliday Nunatak. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

We also scaled the local nunatak — the only rocky outcrop in this area**, to collect some geological samples and to take in the view of the ice fields and how they extend northways abutting the Recovery Glacier itself (the boundary between the two features is impressive, with large ridges, crevasses and ice cliffs). We assume this is a first ascent — so will take this high with pride. The nunatak is formed of a weathered igneous rock (granodiorite), but has lots what we call ‘erratics’ (they are called erratics as they shouldn’t be there geologically speaking) all over the top that have been dropped from the bottom of a glacier which used to run over the rocky peak. Tomorrow we plan to return to the metal detection panel searching and see how sledge number 3 (we really do need a better name) holds up. May his bottom not be broken.

Group ascent of Halliday Nunatak. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

* You might be wondering what/who is Sledge Evatt (i.e., the senior). Well this bold name was given to the blue sledge that was carrying the control equipment for the first sledge unit we set up. Alas, senior had to be retired a few days ago when he also developed a large hole on his underside, passing the responsibility onto junior…

** Recently we requested to name this site Halliday Nunatak after Dr Ian Halliday (1928-2018) who was a Canadian astronomer with expertise in meteor (asteroid and comet) delivery rates to the Earth. His research is related to our core science project of understanding Antarctic meteorite type, delivery rates and glacial transport processes.