Inquiring minds want to know…
January 20, 2006
I want to say thanks, again, to everyone who submitted questions. You really have thought about some very important issues regarding the expedition and conditions here! We don't have any way of seeing the list of questions directly from the field. Instead we rely on people at Georgia Southern University to send us a selection of questions by text message over the satellite phone. Although the expedition has now concluded, I began writing these responses while we were still in the field. I think this covers the remaining questions we received.
Nicholas in grade 5, Bulloch Co., Georgia asked, "Are you and you team having a good time?" Yes, we are. We'd be having a better time if we were able to search for meteorites, of course. Because we all brought books to read, games to play, movies to watch, and our own work to do, we are still enjoying our time here. We also have some very beautiful scenery near our camp, which makes it fun to drive off and do little projects nearby. It's also nice just to take long walks near camp. Still, we are all disappointed and a little frustrated that we haven't been able to do more of what we came here for - to find meteorites!
Bruce in grade 2, Bulloch Co. asked, "Have you seen the Southern lights?" Sadly, no we haven't, Bruce. It's light 24 hours a day here right now. In order for us to see the Southern lights (also called the "Aurora Australis"), or southern stars and constellations it would have to be dark outside. Nighttime darkness doesn't arrive here for another few months, and even then it's only dark for a little while each day. During the winter here (summer where you are) it is dark 24 hours a day. That's when it's best to see the Southern lights. Since we will be here only for another week or so, we won't get to see them.
Vicky, grade 2, Bulloch Co. sent three questions.
"Did Santa bring you any presents?" Well, as I'm sure you know, Vicky, Santa lives at the North Pole - the opposite end of the Earth from us. So we are very far from most of the places he has to visit. We didn't expect Santa to make it this far south because there are so few people here, and we're all grown-ups anyway. But much to our surprise, we did get presents! Apparently Santa delivered all the presents for people in the field to McMurdo Station, our big base on Ross Island. Then they were delivered to us by airplane. Somehow Santa knew exactly what we wanted - fresh food! We got a box full of beautiful red potatoes, carrots, oranges, apples, and grapefruit. That may not sound like much fun, but remember, we haven't had anything but frozen, dried, or packaged food for weeks! So to us, this was the best present we could get out here. Besides, when we called home we found out that Santa also left us some presents there. It will be fun to open them when we get home, even if it is a little late.
"Are the meteorites heavy?" Yes they are. Meteorites are very dense, and they contain metals like iron and nickel, which make them heavy. However, most of them are pretty small, so they're not too hard to carry. We have found a few big meteorites - about the size of a softball or a little bigger. Those ones are pretty heavy. The biggest one we found was the size of a bowling ball, and that one was very heavy!
"Do you live in the igloo, or a tent?" Well, our igloo is nice, but not quite as big or comfortable as our tents. Since everybody gets along pretty well with their tentmates, nobody has moved out to the igloo, yet. We built the igloo partly for fun, and partly to learn how to build a natural, emergency shelter out of snow. It's a useful thing to know if we were to get stranded a long way from camp and had to wait for a rescue. There are no trees, bushes, or grass here. The only natural materials from which to build an emergency shelter are snow and rocks. Snow works better than rocks for two reasons. First, snow is lighter and easier to move than rocks. Second, you can cut and shape snow into blocks that fit together to build things. Third, snow has air trapped in it, and the air acts as an insulator from the cold. (I guess that was three reasons.) Once the snow shelter (igloo) is built, and all the cracks are sealed, you can stay quite warm inside.
Brianne and Madison in Grade 5, Bryan Co., Georgia asked, "Were you chosen to go to Antarctica, or did you ask to go?" The short answer is "both, sort-of." Each of us had to apply to be on the ANSMET expedition team. This involves writing a letter (on real paper that goes in the mail, not an e-mail letter) to the ANSMET leader (or "Principle Investigator"), Ralph Harvey. Most of us took the time to chat with Ralph on the phone and at conferences about the expedition as well. Sometimes it takes years of writing letters to Ralph before a person is chosen for the team. There are lots of different things Ralph has to consider when choosing a team each year. He has to have even numbers of men and women to divide them up evenly (2 people per tent) between "boy's tents" and "girl's tents." He also chooses people who do research that is somehow valuable to the team. For example, I study asteroids, which are where most meteorites come from. So I bring knowledge of the "parent bodies" of meteorites to the team. In return, I get to learn more about meteorites and what they look like when found in the field. Ralph chooses some people because they also have experience working in cold-weather environments. That isn't a requirement to be selected, but it helps. After all, getting dropped of in the middle of a snow and ice wilderness when the temperature is below zero and the wind is howling can be quite a shock!
Sarah, grade 5, Bulloch Co. asked, "How do you drink things without it freezing?" That's a very important concern, Sarah. Back at our main base, McMurdo Station, each team member was issued a 2-liter thermos, a 1-liter thermos, and a 1-liter water bottle with a thick, insulated cover. If we are going out for a whole day, I mix fruit drinks and tea with boiling water in my water bottle. Then I immediately put it into the insulated cover. I also fill my 1-liter thermos with boiling water, which will stay hot for about a day. The drink in the insulated cover stays warm for hours. I make it very strong to start. Then during the day, I pour really hot water from my thermos into the partially empty water bottle to reheat the fruit drink. Sometimes I also have a cup of tea or hot chocolate in the field using hot water from my thermos. The 2-liter thermoses we usually leave in the tent as a ready water supply when we return from the field. Water will stay hot in the big thermos bottles for a couple of days.
We also have a lot of juice boxes with us, and those do freeze because they're outside in a cardboard box. Every few days we bring 6 or 8 of them in and hang them in our tent to thaw out. We have powdered milk, which we usually mix with warm water in a plastic bottle. That does freeze overnight unless we keep it in a warm spot in our tent.
Before we go to bed each night we make sure our tea kettle is full of hot water and all of our thermos bottles are full. That way we don't have to melt ice first thing in the morning for our tea and oatmeal. That is except for a few nights when it got so cold in our tent that the water in our kettle had a thick layer of ice on it!
Mrs. Marshall's second grade class in Bulloch County sent several questions:
"Have you seen a meteorite fall?" I remember someone on the team saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if we saw a meteorite fall while we were out looking for meteorites?" Sadly, that never happened. People do witness meteorite falls now and then, but it's a pretty unusual event.
"What is the coldest it has gotten?" The temperatures at our Miller Range camp were typically between -5 and +14 degrees F. The temperature dipped to about -13 degrees on our coldest days during our first week in the field. That week it was also very windy. The wind chill factor made it feel like it was about -50 degrees! On those days it was cold even inside our tents!
"When a meteorite falls to Earth, is it hot?" Well, the outside of a meteorite gets hot enough to melt as it passes through the atmosphere. The melted part is called a "fusion crust," and it is a very thin layer - only a couple of millimeters thick. Some small meteorites aren't much thicker than that, so the entire thing heats up. The interiors of larger meteorites actually remain quite cold during their fall. If some cases where meteorites were seen to fall, and have broken open, frost formed on the inside surface!
"What part of Antarctica are you in?" We are in a part of the Transantarctic Mountains known as the Miller Range. Our camp is about 135 kilometers northwest of the old Beardmore Camp, and approximately half way between McMurdo Station and South Pole Station (give or take 100 kilometers or so).
"Are there any animals around?" A pair of skuas landed in our camp one day. They stayed around for a few hours and then flew away. We've seen several other skuas fly by in pairs or one at a time. Other than that, there are no animals this far inland. By the time we return to McMurdo, we hope there will be some seals and penguins for us to see.
(You can see photos of skuas in previous weblog entries.)
"Is there another place on Earth that would be good to look for meteorites?" Yes. Greenland has a large ice sheet, and might be a good place to look for the same reasons Antarctica is a good place to search. Vast deserts, such as the Sahara, where there is nothing but sand for many miles, are good places to search. The coastal plain of Georgia is not a bad place to look. As I'm sure you realize, there are very few rocks in your part of the state. Maybe that next funny-looking rock you find in a cotton field will turn out to be a meteorite! Did you know that a meteorite was found in Statesboro a few years ago?
"Has anyone gotten hurt?" Aside from a few bumps and bruises, no. We're very, very careful out here, and we're pretty good at avoiding serious injuries.
"How big is the biggest meteorite that you have found?" The biggest meteorite we found is about the size of a 10-pin bowling ball, and very heavy.