Ice Diary 6: Contacting The Mother Pod

Ice Diary 6

Contacting The Mother Pod

19 December, 2002

"We didn’t do much, but it took us all day to do it," said Jaime Pierce, describing our day.

At first a supply plane was scheduled for today, then last night McMurdo said it had been delayed. This morning McMurdo let us know we had two hours before the plane would arrive. Re-supply flights are important because they also haul out our garbage and broken or unused equipment. We don’t want to have to traverse all that stuff back to Beardmore South Camp.

Ice Cliffs, Antarctica

We spent the better part of the morning getting ready for the flight. One member of our team was going to get to fly back to Goodwin and Beardmore to help the pilots with the loads. Neither Scott nor Dante got to ride in the cockpit of the LC-130, so they used the ancient art of "Rock, Paper, Scissors" to decide who got to take the flight. Dante won.

Many members of our team received gifts and chocolate just in time for Christmas. We were teasing Dante that we took all of his candy while he was on the flight. We won’t receive mail again until our next re-supply in January. Nancy and Linda have gone completely into the Christmas spirit by decorating their tent with stockings and an inflatable penguin wearing reindeer antlers.

With the afternoon still open, we headed back to where we were searching yesterday. 14 more meteorites were recovered, seven by person and seven by metal detector. Nancy was determined not to have the machine win, so we recovered one found the other day by Danny when he was out exploring around camp. This broke the tie.

20 December, 2002

Hi, this is Linda Welzenbach posting for the first time. It’s also my first time in Antarctica, and one of the highlights of my career as a geologist. I applied to ANSMET when I became the Collection Manager of Meteorites at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. I help take care of the U.S. National Meteorite collection, which includes over 10,000 from Antarctica collected by past ANSMET teams over the last 26 years.

While the National Science Foundation makes ANSMET expeditions possible, the Smithsonian, along with NASA, provide the care, classification, and storage of the meteorites, making them accessible to the global scientific community. This means that my primary experience with meteorites is in both the laboratory and museum setting. Now I get to help find them, too.

So how did I get this great job? It started with my mineral-collecting hobby (started at age 7) which became my major in college. Geology also satisfied my need to be outdoors. Just as I was about to receive my Master’s degree, I saw an advertisement in Geotimes magazine looking for a graduate who might be interested in working on a new Geology Hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, specifically in the area of minerals. Minerals aren’t meteorites, but like all rocks, they are made of minerals. So my collection skills and geological background allowed me to become the Collection Manager of Meteorites. The lesson here is, don’t ever leave your hobbies behind.

Meteorites really do look different from the rocks that surround them, even when you are searching through glacial moraine and there are many hundreds of terrestrial rocks to the one or two meteorites. We have collected 138 meteorites as of this posting, and everyone has become an expert meteorite hunter – although I will admit that I get a warm fuzzy feeling inside when the other team members want me to verify their find.

Today was one of the warmest we’ve had since we got in the field; temperatures approached freezing and there was no wind. It’s amazing how warm we felt. Many of us went without jackets for a while today. We found 19 meteorites and we were still up for a game of football when we returned to camp tonight.

21 December, 2002

We all got a very early start this morning when a twin otter landed in our camp at 6:00a.m. There is no alarm clock that compares to the sound of a twin engine aircraft reversing engines in the middle of our camp. They dropped off a cable that would allow our computers to work with the data loggers.

We planned to attach temperature and relative humidity probes to rocks, and then place the rocks in a number of locations – on the ice, in the ice, on snow, on moraines, and on bedrock. This would simulate the conditions that the meteorites experience and to give us a better understanding of their weathering patterns. But the cable that attaches the probes to the data logger was left behind in Cleveland and never made it to Antarctica. So, a few days ago, Jaime had a good idea that maybe the people at the Crary lab at McMurdo could make us one. But after receiving the cable, Jaime discovered they had put too large of a stereo jack on one end.

Jaime was determined not to be defeated by the large stereo jack on the cable. I had an extra pair of headphones with a jack that looked like it would fit, so Jamie cut off the jack and hardwired it into the cable. Unfortunately, there was a bend in the jack so it wouldn’t fit in the data logger. So Jamie cut off the jack from my MP3 player, which was a perfect fit. Despite numerous attempts, however, we still couldn’t get the computer to communicate with the logger. I’m hoping my headphones can be repaired.

from space, Antarctica

Today is the summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere, and our second one of 2002. I realized earlier that we’ve experienced six seasons this year: winter, spring, summer, fall, spring, summer. It doesn’t really matter that it is the longest day of the year. The sun won’t set here for a few more months.

This morning was dedicated to scientific projects. Most of the team put together a project sponsored by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory involving devices called "sensor pods." These are similar to data loggers in that they record information on the temperature and relative humidity, only they work together, radioing the information from one pod to the next and to a "mother pod" kept in Nancy’s tent. This is a new technology being tested by NASA in a variety of environments. They were deployed in all sorts of areas, much like what we wanted to do with the data loggers and outfitted rocks.

The afternoon was spent meteorite hunting. If there were ever anything true about science, it’s that as soon as you have a theory, someone or something proves it false. The theory behind the concentration of meteorites is that they fall all over Antarctica, and the flow of the continental glacier concentrates them in regions of slow moving or stagnant blue ice along the Trans-Antarctic Mountains. So when Nancy proposed we search an area of fast moving ice, we didn’t expect to find many. We found 30.

They came in batches, big and small; some in wind scoops and some in the middle of the ice. This brings our total to 168. Combined with the findings of the Rekki team, our season total is already over 300. They seem to be having just as much success with a group of four as we are in a group of eight!

22 December, 2002

We knew today was going to be a successful day when we found five meteorites on our way to our starting point. One was right in the middle of an area we searched just a couple of days ago. That’s not unusual. The meteorites and the ice look totally different at different times of the day as the sun circles counter-clockwise overhead.

It’s also not unusual to find a meteorite that others have walked right past. I’ve done that twice, but I can’t brag because others have found meteorites that I’ve missed. In fact today, I wandered back to my ski-doo because I was craving the Pringles I’d hidden in the trunk. As I sat there stuffing my face, I looked down and saw that I had parked right next to a beautiful, black meteorite. I’d like to say that the Pringles recharged my awareness, but I think I was just lucky.

One tool that has helped us quite a bit is Dante’s metal detector. It found 19 of the 45 meteorites discovered today. As a team, we have mixed feelings about it. We think it’s great that it finds meteorites, even those buried in snow. But it can be disheartening when he goes over an area that we’ve already searched and finds meteorites. I can’t complain. 45 meteorites shattered the team’s old daily record of 30. That brings us to a total of 214 just for our team.

The Rekki team is following close behind with over 160 meteorites. They are still in the La Paz/Pecora region and are having lots of success. Their spirits are high and between the two teams, we’re having a very successful season.

Sliding down half-pipe

One of the reasons for our success is not only the abundance of the meteorites, but the fun we have in finding them. At lunch today, Jamie led us up to a natural snow "half-pipe," like one would see at a snow board competition. He cut "stairs" in the side with an ice ax and we took turns climbing it and sledding down our backs. It was like a waterslide without the wetness.

We also have fun naming the areas we visit. These are not official names for these locations, but Antarctica is one of the only places where few landmarks have names. We give them names so that we know where we’re going for the day. One of the first moraines we searched we named Harvaine Moraine after our P.I., Dr. Ralph Harvey, back in Cleveland. The next moraine we couldn’t agree on a name so it has become "That Moraine." Today we had most of our success on Quiche Moraine, named by Scott Messenger who is manly enough to admit he is a fan of quiche lorraine.

We are starting to look forward to Christmas. It’s kind of a running joke down here that we’re expecting a "White Christmas." It was cold again today with the winds coming out of the south. It’s kind of backwards to the way we think of things in the Northern Hemisphere. The cold winds come from the south and cool us down like an "Alberta Clipper" does to the United States in the winter. For a short time today, the winds shifted and came from the north bringing warmer temperatures. I wish it had lasted longer.

Since 1976, the Antarctic Search for Meteorites program (ANSMET), funded by the Office of Polar Programs of the National Science Foundation, has recovered more than 10,000 specimens from meteorite stranding surfaces along the Transantarctic Mountains. Dr. Ralph Harvey and John Schutt are members of each field party, serving as ANSMET continues to be one of the few Antarctic research projects that invites graduate students and senior researchers from other institutions to participate in our field work on a volunteer basis–including the Teacher Experiencing Antarctica (TEA) program. As a multi-agency collaboration, the NSF supports field operations, NASA supports storage curation, distribution and notification of recovered samples, and the Smithsonian provides long term curation facilities for the collection and assist in sample characterization.

In this multi-part Ice Diary series, all commentary is attributed to Andy Caldwell unless otherwise noted, and reprinted by permission as part of his participation in the TEA program.

Related Web Pages

Ice Diary I: Shooting Stars on Ice
Ice Diary 2: Great Scott, A Ghost
Ice Diary 3: Cheer for Team Meteorite
Ice Diary 4: The Hunt Begins
Ice Diary 5: MacAlpine Hills or Bust
Ice Diary 6: Contacting The Mother Pod
Ice Diary 7: Summer Christmas
Ice Diary 8: Where No One Has Gone Before
Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET)
Planetary Materials Curation (NASA/JSC)
Mars Meteorite Compendium (NASA/JSC)
AMLAMP: Antarctic Meteorite Location and Mapping Program (database of where meteorites have been found)
National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Polar Programs
McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project
Ice Cube of Exotic Microbes
Antarctic Microbes Colonize under Mars-like Conditions
Cryobot (JPL)
Meteorite Repository (JSC) Rock Descriptions
NIPR Meteorite Collection (Japan)