Towable metal detectors to seek out missing Antarctic meteorites
To help hunt down elusive iron meteorites in Antarctica, the University of Manchester recently tested its new towable metal detectors at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) NERC Arctic research station at Ny-Ålesund on the Island of Spitsbergen in Norway deep in the Arctic Circle. The test was small, but it's part of the first ever British-led meteorite hunting expedition in Antarctica that will be carried out in conjunction with BAS.
Meteorites were our first samples of the cosmos beyond our Earth and still the most accessible. These bits of debris from the formation of the Solar System continue to tell us much about the universe even in an age of deep space probes and planetary rovers – and one of the best places to look for meteorites is on the frozen plans of the Antarctic ice cap. There the meteorites show up as plainly against the stark white of the snow as raisins in a slice of bread before it reaches the toaster.
According to BAS, there's a bit of a problem. It seems that the meteorites collected in Antarctica don't match the general population. In fact, there's a distinct lack of iron-based metallic ones. A University of Manchester multidisciplinary research team led by applied mathematician Dr Geoffrey Evatt contends that this is because these metallic meteorites are darker than the ones usually found, so they absorb more sunlight as they lie on the surface or embedded in the clear ice. As they get warmer, they melt the ice and sink down until covered by more snow and ice.
To find these wayward thunderbolts, the University of Manchester team called on their experience in developing advanced metal detectors that are used in airport security scanning, landmine removal, recycling, and non-destructive testing. The result is a small detector unit that can be towed behind a Ski-Doo.
Now that the prototypes have passed their first field test in Norway, the next step will be to make a preliminary visit to Antarctica next year, followed by the main hunting expedition in 2020, where BAS will provide logistical and operational support. This will involve airlifting the team to three different sites deep in the Antarctic far from the nearest research stations, where they will work in freezing temperatures and gale-force winds.
"I'm thrilled our testing at Ny-Ålesund worked," says Evat. "We now have the opportunity to commence on a truly exciting scientific adventure. If successful, our expeditions will help scientists to decode the origins of the Solar System and cement the UK as a leader in meteoritics and planetary science."