For about a month, Katherine Joy spent hours snaking up and down the Antarctic ice on a snowmobile, trying to spot gatherings of meteorites.
The bottom of the Earth is a jarringly alien realm—an “expansive place where the sky and ice seem to go on forever,” says Joy, a Royal Society University Research Fellow and meteorite hunter at the University of Manchester. And in some stretches of ice, “every rock you come across is from space.”
The majority of the world’s meteorites are discovered in Antarctica. A single dark rock would be easy enough to spot amid the white background, but the movements of the ice can also act as a conveyor belt, creating concentrated pockets of space debris. Meteorite-hunting expeditions over the past few decades have revealed, though, an enigmatic lack of iron meteorites in Antarctica compared with other locations around the world.
Though iron meteorites are falling through the atmosphere at equal rates across the planet, they simply weren’t showing up on the icy surface as often as they should be compared with their stony meteorite cousins. This raised an intriguing possibility: These missing iron meteorites were hiding beneath Antarctica’s ice.
To test this idea, Joy and her colleagues had come to Antarctica as part of the first-ever expedition to search for “lost meteorites.” They spent late December to early February scouting out accessible spots that might contain the best hauls. If they eventually find these missing meteorites on the full-blown expedition in a year’s time, they’ll have located new geochemical clues contained within that chronicle the early chaos of the solar system and its inner rocky planets, including our own.