Iron meteorites ‘buried in Antarctica’ by the Sun

New research suggests there could be a layer of iron-rich
meteorites hidden just under the Antarctic ice.

The churning of glaciers spews many space rocks out on to
the surface in Antarctica, but compared to elsewhere on Earth, few of them are
made of iron.

Based on modelling and lab experiments, scientists say the
missing metallic rocks might be burying themselves, by melting the ice as
sunlight heats them.

To prove their idea, the team now wants to look for the
rocks themselves.

“The study is proposing a hypothesis – these samples
should be there. We just have to go and locate them,” said Dr Katherine
Joy from the University of Manchester, a co-author of the paper published in
Nature Communications.

Antarctica is known by meteorite specialists as a fruitful
hunting ground, because the rocks are collected from their landing sites by
glacial flows and transported to concentrated dumping-grounds.

“The great thing about Antarctica is they fall on the
ice, and then the ice progressively moves away from the plateau. And where it
hits these barriers, along the Transantarctic Mountains, the ice gets moved
up,” Dr Joy told the BBC.

“So this continuous conveyor belt has delivered
meteorites from the interior fall sites to the ‘meteorite stranding zones’ for
the past couple of million years or so.”

Iron meteorites. By Waifer X (originally posted to Flickr as 090423-1080887) [CC BY 2.0 (http://ift.tt/o655VX)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Among this Antarctic haul, however, researchers have noticed
that iron-rich meteorites – whether partly or wholly made of the metal – are
surprisingly scarce, compared to the percentage collected in other places
around the world.


Dr Joy and her colleagues think they may have discovered
why.

They froze two small meteorites of similar size and shape,
one made of iron and the other rocky and non-metallic, inside blocks of ice. A special
lamp was trained on the ice from above, to mimic the rays of the Sun.

Both meteorites, on repeated trials, melted their way
downward through the ice block. But because the metal conducts heat more
efficiently, the iron meteorite sank further, faster.

The researchers then expanded that observation using a
mathematical simulation. Their model showed that this Sun-driven burrowing
would be enough to cause iron-rich rocks to sink so much during the long summer
days that, over the course of the year, it would account fairly precisely for
the lack of iron space rocks welling their way to the surface of the Antarctic
“stranding zones”.

“The idea is, they never make it to the surface.
They’re forever trapped, 50-100cm or so below the ice,” Dr Joy explained.

That means, if the team’s findings are to be believed, that
the hunt is on.
As Dr Joy’s Manchester colleague Geoffrey Evatt put it:
“The challenge is now set – to be the first team to locate this reserve of
meteorites and retrieve samples from it.”

Of all the meteorites gathered from Antarctica, only a
handful – so far – have been pulled out from beneath the ice. This is mostly
for practical reasons, Dr Joy said.

“When it’s very cold… picking up the sample in a
controlled way is difficult enough with things sitting on the surface. To
access ones that are subsurface – nobody’s really tried to do that so
far.”

So it will not be easy, but the team hopes that radar and
metal detectors might help target the search. And the potential rewards are
high.

“Every meteorite we find tells us something new about
the Solar System,” Dr Joy said.

Some are carbon-rich or rocky remnants from long before any
planet clumped together; others – like iron and rocky-iron meteorites – offer
clues from a more intermediate stage, when baby planets with cores, mantles and
crusts were trying to form.

“The iron group represents meteorites that were once
the cores and the internal structures of different planetesimals.

“We think there were probably hundreds of these early
planets, that formed in the solar system but never really got big enough and
were broken up in collision events.”

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Posted on February 23, 2016, in Useful Information. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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