Meteorites and micrometeorites: Antarctica – the ideal place to look

Rocks and dust from comets, asteroids and rocky planets in our solar system such as Mars are constantly falling on the Earth. These ‘meteorites’ and smaller, dust-like ‘micrometeorites’ (less than 1 mm in diameter) are found worldwide. Collecting and studying them helps scientists understand more about the origins and evolution of our solar system, as well as that of life on our planet.

Many meteorites and tons of micrometeorites reach the ground every day but Antarctica is a particularly good place to look for them. Their dark colours stand out against the ice and they are well-preserved due to the cold, dry conditions and the isolation of the continent. There is even a kind of ‘conveyor belt’ of ice that moves down the mountains causing meteorites to gather at the bottom where they are easy to see. Between them, expeditions from many different countries have so far collected some 20,000 meteorites in Antarctica.

Mysteries to solve

But there is still much to learn. For instance, there are far fewer iron-rich meteorites in Antarctica than anywhere else in the world. A British expedition, launched in January 2017, has set out to explore why. Could it be that iron-meteorites are hidden below the ice, or is there another reason?

Also, in January 2017, scientists from Belgium, in partnership with colleagues from France, launched a project call BAMM! to extend Belgium’s existing collection of Antarctica meteorites and micrometeorites. This project builds on the work of a Japanese-Belgian expedition that collected hundreds of meteorites in the Sør Rondane mountains (near the Belgian Antarctic research station) from 2009 to 2013. These included some large fragments up to 18 kg in weight!

The French-Italian Concordia station on Dome C is also active in the field of meteorite research. Its work includes studies of UltraCarbonaceous Antarctic MicroMeteorites, a rarely found type of micrometeorite rich in organic material.