Physics Colloquium: Coldly Going Where No One Has Gone Before: Hunting for Meteorites in Antarctica

Event Details

  • Speaker(s): Scott Van Bommel
  • Date:
  • Time: 3:00 pm
  • Location: MacN 415


Nearly 15,000 km from Guelph and almost due south, for hundreds of thousands of years, light snow has fallen gently and infrequently on glaciers. As the air bubbles are squeezed out, the ice crystals enlarge, resulting in a Neptune-blue appearance. These vast sheets of blue ice, rippled with suncups, have persisted since the beginning of human history. Due to their age and physical properties, along with the unique geography of the region, lost remnants of our solar system, dislodged from their nascent homes, find themselves in significant concentrations within a relatively small area. These meteorites will sit unaltered and hardly weathered for millennia as the sun repeats its circular dance and disappearing act. It is through the study of these meteorites that humanity has direct windows into our early solar system.

Since 1976, the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) has been venturing to the blue ice fields each year, recovering over 21,000 specimens for study by the global scientific community. Within the Transantarctic Mountains, accompanied by 24-hour daylight, a team of scientists on skidoos hunt for meteorites from tent-based camps. Hours-to-days away from help, with little possibility for a re-supply, a much simpler life in such a harsh and yet beautiful environment provides a humbling and perspective-altering experience.

I was incredibly fortunate to have been selected from a pool of applicants to join this NASA-funded mission for the recently completed field season. This talk will briefly touch on the science of meteorites and why we look for them in Antarctica. The majority of the discussion, however, will focus mostly on anecdotes and bringing the journey and experience to members of the audience. And yes, before you ask, there were penguins.