Five perfectly-preserved meteorites, which have been trapped in the Antarctic ice sheet for tens of thousands of years, have been scooped up by delighted scientists.
Among them is one of the heaviest meteorites ever discovered in Antarctica, a beast of a space rock roughly the size of a cantaloupe melon which weighs an impressive 17lb.
Antarctica is a rich hunting ground for meteorite science, because objects remain relatively uncontaminated and are easy to spot on the featureless glaciers, but of the 45,000 meteorites so far discovered on the empty continent, this latest find is in the Top 100 weightiest objects.
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One of the researchers, Ryoga Maeda, told Belgian news site The Brussels Times: "The objects come from the asteroid belt and probably plopped down into the Antarctic blue ice several tens of thousands of years ago”.
The asteroid belt, a loose collection of objects ranging in size from pebbles to the dwarf planet Ceres, contains “left over” material from the formation of the Solar System and objects from that region can give a deeper insight into how the Earth and other planets formed.
The cannonball-sized find made by the scientists would have been a good deal larger before its fiery descent through the Earth’s atmosphere.
Team member Maria Valdes, a meteorite expert from the Field Museum in Chicago, said: "Size doesn't necessarily matter when it comes to meteorites and even tiny micrometeorites can be incredibly scientifically valuable.
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"But of course, finding a big meteorite like this one is rare and really exciting.”
She explained: ”Studying meteorites helps us better understand our place in the universe. The bigger a sample size we have of meteorites, the better we can understand our solar system, and the better we can understand ourselves."
In the past, researchers would have to painstakingly scour the ice sheet for likely-looking objects but Valdes and her colleagues were able to narrow down their search area using a new technique involving satellite data and artificial intelligence.
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But even with that help, trudging through the Antarctic’s unforgiving wastes in search of potential asteroid material was exhausting and often frustrating work.
”The reality on the ground is much more difficult than the beauty of satellite images," said lead expedition scientist Vinciane Debaille, a geochemist at the Free University of Brussels.
Still, the scientists all managed to take home a souvenir.
While the main samples collected during the expedition have been sent to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels for analysis, each expedition scientist was allowed to keep a few samples of potential meteorite dust, which was collected from around the fallen space rocks, to use in their own research.
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