Explorers trawling the polar ice have finally unearthed a trove of precious, iron-rich space rocks that might help crack the puzzle of how our planet took shape
27 May 2020
A BEEP sounded in Katherine Joy’s earpiece and a light flashed on her handlebar display. The metal detector dragging behind her snowmobile had found something buried in the thick Antarctic ice. She dismounted. Could this finally be it?
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A convoluted story had brought Joy and her fellow treasure hunters here, 700 kilometres south of the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley VI research station. You might say the story started 4.5 billion years before, as a result, probably, of a massive star going supernova. Its rumbling shock wave caused a cloud of dust and gas laced with heavier elements to begin to collapse in on itself, eventually forming the sun and the planets, moons, asteroids and, eventually, other components of our solar system, like us.
For decades, researchers have been hunting for pristine material from these turbulent times to better understand exactly how these processes occurred. Joy and her colleagues had ventured out into the Antarctic wilderness following a hot lead to fill a crucial gap in the tale: the mystery of the missing meteorites. What they found, however, wasn’t one mystery, but two.
Meteorites are time capsules from the solar system’s birth. They are mostly fragments of asteroids that orbit between Mars and Jupiter, plus the occasional unsullied piece of the moon or Mars that has come unstuck and crossed Earth’s orbital path. These fragments have existed more or less untouched since bits of rock first began to accrete from smaller dust particles as they whirled around the infant sun. With their chemistry unadulterated by the tectonics, …