A team of researchers has discovered five new meteorites in Antarctica—one of which weighs a whopping 16.7 pounds.
For about a week and a half, the scientists rode snowmobiles and slept in tents, enduring the cold Antarctic summer temperatures of 14 degrees Fahrenheit as they searched for space rocks in the ice. Their largest find is among the heaviest meteorites ever found on the continent and could provide a glimpse into our solar system’s history.
“The object comes from the asteroid belt and probably plopped down into the Antarctic blue ice several tens of thousands of years ago,” Ryoga Maeda, a researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel who co-led the team, tells the Brussels Times’ Lauren Walker.
Frigid Antarctica is a hotspot for meteorite discoveries. To date, scientists have uncovered some 45,000 space rocks from the continent—and as many as 300,000 more might still be in the ice. Most meteorites on Earth are found in deserts, and Antarctica, because it receives so little precipitation, is a polar desert. These dry conditions are prime for preserving space rocks, which fall evenly across Earth. Plus, dark rocks from the cosmos are easy to spot amid the pale icescape, and a general lack of terrestrial rocks limits look-alikes from our own planet.
But even among the thousands of Antarctic meteorites, the new discovery stands out. Only about 100 of these rocks clock in at 16.7 pounds or larger, per a statement.
“We don’t tend to find too many meteorites in Antarctica that are as big as this,” Ashley King, a researcher at the Natural History Museum in London who was not involved in the discovery, tells New Scientist’s Alex Wilkins. “The more meteorite we have, the more sample that we have available for us to study and learn about the early solar system.”
Meteorites are windows into the past. Certain space rocks contain bits of solid material formed at the birth of our solar system some 4.6 billion years ago. They provide the rare pieces of other planets, asteroids and comets for scientists to examine; meteorites can reveal the age of elements that formed planets and the temperatures on and within asteroids, among other things.
While the team hasn’t fully analyzed the new finds, the largest one appears to be an ordinary chondrite, the most common type of space rock, containing lots of metal. Team member Maria Valdes, a research scientist at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, has held onto a few samples that she will continue to study.
“Then I can start to think about the origin of this rock, how it evolved over time, what kind of parent body it came from and where in the solar system that parent body formed,” Valdes tells CNN’s Jackie Wattles.
Last year, a group of scientists led by glaciologist Veronica Tollenaar developed a map of likely hotspots for finding space rocks in Antarctica. They combined satellite data with the locations of past meteorites, surface temperatures and ice flow velocities and used a machine learning algorithm to estimate the likelihood of finding more rocks at a given location. The current team was the first one to search those mapped sites.
The researchers identified five locations to comb for meteorites. One of the sites turned up the five extraterrestrial rocks, per New Scientist.
The meteorites will now thaw under controlled conditions at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, where they will be analyzed. Like Valdes, each researcher also has sediment samples to study at their own institutions in hopes of finding small space particles within them.
“Even tiny micrometeorites can be incredibly scientifically valuable,” says Valdes in the statement. “But of course, finding a big meteorite like this one is rare and really exciting.”