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NASA Astronaut Stan Love Joins Researchers on Antarctic Expedition
Astronaut Stan Love

During a break from collecting meteorites, astronaut Stan Love stands on top of a sastrugi at the LaPaz Icefields, Antarctica. Photo Credit: Cari Corrigan/Smithsonian Institution

Meteorites have been found all across Antarctica. It’s not that they fall only there; they fall randomly all over the world. The ice-covered continent is just an easy place to find them.

For this reason, researchers have traveled there annually for more than three decades to recover meteorites. The Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) program is an inexpensive yet guaranteed way to recover meteorites from the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. These rocks are critical to our understanding of the history of the solar system, providing essential "ground-truth" for our study of the asteroids, planets, and other bodies of our solar system.

Jointly supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA, the field work is led by Dr. Ralph P. Harvey at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Two teams of researchers left for the Antarctic in mid-November to begin this year’s hunt for meteorites. NASA astronaut Stan Love, making his second trip to Antarctica for ANSMET, is on the Systematic Search Team, which will go to Grosvenor Mountains to search the ice fields where meteorites are known to exist. The other team, called the Reconnaissance Team, will go first to the Robison Glacier area and then to Amundsen Glacier. Their task is to identify regions that may harbor meteorites for future exploration in more depth.

Joining Love on the Systematic Search Team are Rob Coker, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center; Jim Karner, Case Western Reserve University (field team leader); Shaun Norman, Case Western Reserve University; Andrew Beck, Smithsonian; Tom Sharp, Arizona State University; Meenakshi Wadhwa, Arizona State University; and Marianne Mader, Western Ontario University. Members of the Reconnaissance Team are John Schutt, Case Western Reserve University (field team leader); Joe Boyce, University of Hawaii; Tomoko Arai, Chiba Institute of Technology, Tokyo; and Katie Joy, University of Manchester, United Kingdom.

In addition to their roles in collecting meteorites, Norman and Schutt are highly trained mountaineers whose job it is to keep everyone safe. Together they have 80 years of Antarctic field experience.

2012-2013 ANSMET

This map shows locations that the 2012-2013 Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) teams will explore.

This year’s explorers will meet in Christchurch, New Zealand, for a few days to get extreme cold-weather clothing. After that, they will board a C-17 along with as many as 100 other people for the five-hour flight to Antarctica. They will land on a compacted-snow runway at McMurdo Station, Antarctica’s largest community and a functional, modern-day science station.

After 7-10 days of training and packing, they will break into the two teams and head out to their field sites.

All of the meteorites collected are brought back to Johnson Space Center for initial characterization. The origin of the meteorites, whether they be from Mars, the Moon, an asteroid, a comet or another body, is not known until they have been examined in detail by curators at JSC and the Smithsonian Institution. These samples are then made available, free of charge, to scientists from around the world.

The ANSMET program has collected more than 20,000 meteorites since it began in 1976, including 12 from Mars and 24 from the Moon. Before meteorites were recovered from Antarctica, world meteorite collections contained only a few thousand meteorites.

“The collection at Johnson continues to grow in number and diversity,” said Dr. Kevin Righter, NASA curator of the Meteorite Lab. “As the number of unique samples grows, so does the number of requests for them. We have meteorites from the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and possibly even comets. Samples of all of these kinds are in demand by planetary scientists.”

Johnson maintains what is referred to as the “active collection,” which means it is actively being studied by researchers. About 1,000 such samples are distributed annually, 85 percent of them to researchers in the United States and 15 percent to international researchers. The Meteorite Lab at Johnson has about 12,000 samples; samples that are of lower scientific interest are transferred annually to the Smithsonian Institution for long-term storage.

The curation and collection of Antarctic meteorites is a U.S.-funded, cooperative effort among NASA, the NSF, and the Smithsonian Institution. The NSF, with decades of experience in exploring this harsh environment, provides support for field research and collection. NASA and the Smithsonian Institution, as experts in curation of lunar samples and geologic specimens, respectively, provide for the classification, storage and distribution of Antarctic meteorites.

A study of two Martian meteorites recently helped scientists find similarities in the formation of Mars and Earth.

› View the news release

› Visit the Antarctic Search for Meteorites website and blog