Nina Lanza is studying the solar system by spending six weeks on an ice sheet in Antarctica. The 36-year-old staff scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is on a treasure hunt of sorts, scouring the windswept landscape for meteorites that have landed on the ice and remained there untouched for thousands, if not millions, of years. With no water or soil to cover them, meteorites in Antarctica remain in pristine condition for millennia.
To find them, Lanza and seven others are snowmobiling through the Trans-Antarctica Mountains. When they find a promising spot, they get off their vehicles and, like beachcombers scouring sand for seashells, they walk slowly and look carefully at the ground. The meteorites have a distinct worn and pitted metallic surface, which differentiates them from other rocks formed in Antarctica.
The expedition is part of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution and NASA. Since 1976, the project has found more than 16,000 meteorites, most of which are stored at the Smithsonian.
Why is NASA involved? Lanza says collecting meteorites is cheaper than sending spacecraft across the solar system to retrieve them. This year’s expedition continues until late January.
Lanza is posting tweets from the expedition from her Twitter handle, @marsninja, and members of the team are contributing blog posts and photos at caslabs.case.edu/ansmet. She spoke with The Post in November from the U.S. Antarctic base at McMurdo Station before heading out to her field camp about 200 miles away.
How do you find the meteorites in Antarctica?
We drive around on Ski-Doos and look. When a meteorite falls into the snow of Antarctica, it becomes incorporated into the glaciers. Strong winds will [eventually] scour away the ice. These are blue-ice areas where the snow has been compressed over time, giving it a bluish rather than white color, and a great place to see concentrated meteorites. The meteorites are waiting there on the surface. We drive in formation on these blue-ice areas and pick up rocks. It’s remarkably low-tech. We’ve tried using drones and robots, but it turns out that humans are the best tools; our eyes are better at picking them out.
How do you keep warm while you’re doing that?
We each have a thick parka called Big Red. We will be sleeping in Scott tents, named after the Antarctic explorer Sir Robert Scott. They are about eight foot square with a center peak, and the walls are double-layered canvas and slope down. The floor of the tent is not attached, because if your tent blows away you don’t want to blow away with it. [A recent blog post reported a temperature of 3 degrees below zero and winds of 52 mph, which kept the team hunkered down for a time.]
The stove is inside the tent. It gets hot in there.
With the tough conditions, is it hard some days to keep motivated and get out there?
I am so thrilled to be contributing to the science. This project collects the vast majority of the world’s meteorites, and this really impacts planetary science. It won’t get old. This is a really exciting personal adventure for me. It’s easy to get cranky about little things, but I’m one of these lucky people who get to take part in this amazing experience, and it is the wildest place I will ever be.
What can you learn from a meteorite?
[NASA] has not gotten many [rock] samples from other planetary bodies, except for the moon and a comet. We don’t have a lot of materials because it’s hard to do and it is expensive. Meteorites represent materials from all over the solar system that have fallen to us. It a gift, a way to sample other bodies without leaving Earth.
What are some of the questions you ask once you get them?
The same as what you would do with any rock. For example, you could learn about the history of water in the solar system. When did water first start? Was there water in the primordial materials, or did it come in from somewhere else? What minerals are forming where, and at what times? It’s about understanding the fundamentals about how our solar system formed and evolved. These are fundamental questions that meteorites help answer.
One of the most interesting things from meteorites is every rocky body has a unique signature in oxygen isotopes. [Isotopes have the same number of protons as their base element but different numbers of neutrons.] What makes an element an element is the number of protons, but you can add additional neutrons to make an isotope. Oxygen 16, 17 and 18 are the three stable isotopes of oxygen. Depending on where you are in the solar system, you can identify where the planetary bodies are formed by looking at the number of oxygen isotopes in them. That is something determined by studying meteorites. That’s one of the key pieces of evidence to support that the moon and Earth formed from the same material, because they have similar oxygen isotopes.
How did you get into science as a young person?
My parents are both science types. My mom majored in geology, and my dad is a professor of nuclear engineering. They took me in 1986 to see Halley’s Comet when I was 7. They said, “You are looking out into the universe.” I knew this was what I wanted to study for the rest of my life. As a kid I learned everything I could about space missions. I really wanted to do space expeditions. I’m excited I was able to make my childhood dream of studying other planets come true.
Niiler is a freelance science writer.