Scientists hunt meteorites in Antarctica with metal-detecting snowmobiles

hunt meteorites antarctica metal detector meteorites2 uofmanchester
University of Manchester

On the hunt for lost meteorites in Antarctica (which totally sounds like a mission straight out of Tomb Raider), researchers from the U.K.’s University of Manchester have turned to innovative metal-detecting technology to help them.

With that driving mission, they have developed a purpose-built detector unit which can be towed behind a Ski-Doo snowmobile. This metal-detecting device is based on tech optimized by University of Manchester researchers for airport security scanning, landmine removal, recycling, and non-destructive testing. In this specific case, the researchers hope to use it to discover iron meteorites which are hidden mere centimeters beneath the surface of the ice but are nonetheless difficult to discover.

The researchers have yet to face the chilly climes of the most remote parts of Antarctica, however. Instead, their recent small-scale test mission testing was carried out at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Arctic research station at Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard — on the Norwegian archipelago between continental Norway and the North Pole.

“I’m thrilled our testing at Ny-Ålesund worked,” applied mathematician Dr. Geoffrey Evatt, who led the team, said in a statement. “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 U.K. as a leader in meteoritics and planetary science.”

The reason the researchers are so interested in these meteorites is because they may hold important information about the formation of the Solar System. Iron meteorites were formed from the cores of small planets, which were later destroyed by other planetary impacts. The best place to find these meteorites is in Antarctica since their dark color shows up easily against the white background of snow and ice. However, iron-based meteorites are in short supply. One hypothesis for this is that they are more easily warmed by the sun and this causes them to melt the ice around them, and subsequently become trapped beneath the surface.

With the trial mission an apparent success, the researchers’ main mission will reportedly take place in early 2020. A preliminary visit to Antarctica will happen before then in 2019. On the Antarctic continent, the team will work at three different sites, transported using a specialized aircraft provided by the British Antarctic Survey.