UCC graduate fires starting gun in race for hidden Antarctic meteorites

19 Feb 2016

Antarctic asteroid image via University of Manchester

An international research team, which included a leading University College Cork (UCC) researcher, has published a paper that suggests a possible layer of meteorites exists beneath the Antarctic ice.

Antartica has long been considered to be one of the easier places to find meteorites due to their typically black colouring being starkly different than the brilliant white ice, despite the fact that meteorites fall evenly across the entire planet.

What aided the meteorite hunt even more in the vast southern continent were the dynamics of ice flows, which led to the creation of surface regions called meteorite stranding zones (MSZs), allowing for easy pickings for geologists.

However, so far, far fewer iron-rich meteorites are found in Antarctica than anywhere else on Earth, which, at least according to statistical probability, makes no sense.

Dropping like a hot stone

Now, however, a team of international researchers from the University of Manchester has published a paper in Nature – including the paper’s second author, UCC graduate Michael Coughlan – which indicates the likely reason for their lack of discovery is down to the effects of the sun.

According to the team’s findings, the missing iron-rich meteorites from MSZs is likely the result of the sun’s rays penetrating deep beneath the clear ice in MSZs, thereby warming the iron-rich rocks more than non-metallic ones.

Antartic meteorite

Antarctic meteorite image via University of Manchester

A ‘starting gun’ for scientists

In doing so, the hot, iron-rich meteorites would drop further into the ice, missing the regular ice flows and, as a result, would remain trapped forever.

Even more interesting for geologists is the news that, based off the team’s mathematical calculations, this new discovery would mean that these elusive meteorites could be just 10-50cm from the surface, making their retrieval tantalisingly possible.

Speaking of the importance of this find, Coughlan – who also hosts his own radio show for UCC – says that the hunt is now on for researchers to try get their hands on the meteorites.

“It’s the starting gun in a race for scientists from different nations to find them,” he told Siliconrepublic.com.

“Every meteorite recovered teaches us more about the solar system, and iron meteorites are particularly important as they come from the cores of planets. They can tell us about how planets like ours formed, and about early planets that no longer exist.”

Antarctica image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic