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Searching for meteorites, researchers turn to data-driven ‘treasure map’

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Searching for meteorites, researchers turn to data-driven ‘treasure map’

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Scattered like confetti across the frozen lands of Antarctica, alien time capsules containing clues to planet formation and the origins of life itself await discovery.

Hundreds of thousands of meteorites remain on or just below the subzero surface, giving scientists a tantalizing glimpse into the beginnings of our solar system. Half a century of recovery operations has uncovered some spectacular finds, including fragments of the moon and Mars.

Yet Antarctic meteorite expeditions are more or less a potluck: many missions return, after great expense and no small danger, empty-handed.

“Right now it’s all trial and error,” said Steven Goderis, a geochemist at Vrije University in Brussels. “Visit an ice field on a recon mission and see what you get, often based on chance and past experience.”

The “treasure map” of Antarctic meteorites shows how objects are not evenly scattered across the entire ice sheet.Veronique Tollenaar

Now a Belgian-Dutch team of scientists say they’ve created the first “treasure map” showing where meteorites can be found, using machine learning to improve researchers’ chances of recovering space rocks, according to a study published Wednesday. in the journal Science Advances.

About 45,000 meteorites have been collected in Antarctica, nearly two-thirds of all meteorites found on Earth so far.

“There are probably fewer meteorites falling per acre of land in Antarctica than in other parts of the world,” said Ralph Harvey, principal investigator of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Meteorite Research Program and professor at Case. Western Reserve University.

“But if you want to find things that fell from the sky, spread out a big white sheet. And Antarctica is a sheet 5,000 kilometers wide.

Meteorites are not evenly dispersed. Upon landing, they sink into the ice cap. Over time, they shift as the ice moves, pushed out to the ocean and pushed up towards the surface in what are called blue ice patches.

He said local conditions such as temperature, wind speed and topography can make meteor hunting a game of chance.

“We’ll go to an ice cap where we think the conditions are great, and we’ll search an area the size of a tennis court and find 100 specimens there,” said Harvey, who has been on 24 Antarctic missions. “Then we’ll search an area the size of Delaware and we won’t find anything.”

Collecting a meteorite from the Nansen Blue Ice Area, near the Belgian Princess Elisabeth Antarctic Research Station.BELARE Meteorite Recovery Expedition 2019-2020

In 2012, Harry Zekollari, now a postdoctoral researcher at ETH Zurich, joined a Belgian-Japanese recovery mission to the Nansen Icefield, some 3,000 miles south of New Zealand.

The expedition unearthed more than 400 meteorites, including an object known as Asuka 12236. About 4.5 billion years old, Asuka 12236 contained amino acids that offered clues to the onset of the life on Earth.

Zekollari realized that the objects had been missed by another expedition a few decades earlier, proof that meteorites can hide in plain sight, and that there may be a better way to predict where they are. likely to be found.

“We knew we could get a lot of satellite data because there are certain characteristics you need, such as slow speeds of ice movement and the ice has to be cold,” he said.

“But we also quickly knew that it’s not just that we saw these conditions, so there must be meteorites here. There was an interaction, and to get that interaction, we really needed machine learning. »

Zekollari and his team used data from previous expeditions, along with satellite imagery, to identify four key conditions that could predict the presence of meteorites in a given area. They then fed these observations into an algorithm to create their map.

“We had the continent-wide data and we knew the places where they had already found meteorites that we could use to train the algorithm,” said Veronica Tollenaar, a doctoral student at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels.

“But we also needed data from places where they didn’t find meteorites. It was a bit difficult because there is very little data on unsuccessful missions.”

These “unsuccessful” missions were not labelled, leaving the algorithm to infer based on an interaction of temperature, ice speed, slope and radar data, whether or not an area was susceptible. to contain meteorites.

By testing the accuracy of the machine using independent shipping data, the team found that it was correct more than 80% of the time. In total, he estimates that there are between 300,000 and 900,000 pieces of undiscovered space rock left in Antarctica.

And thanks to the Antarctic Treaty, which classifies the continent as a giant reserve that does not belong to any country, the meteorites there belong to the international scientific community – a kind of Creative Commons astrogeology.

“It’s a big contrast to the meteorites found in North Africa, because the finder owns them and it’s very difficult to use them for research,” said Tollenaar, lead author of the study published in Science Advances.

“There is a monetary value in these things, and that hampers science a lot. It’s very nice to own a meteorite but if you can learn from it, I’d say it’s even more beautiful.

The team stresses that its map does not guarantee that all future expeditions will find meteorites.

“The disclaimer is that this is just based on modeling,” Zekollari said. “But we hope it can make some missions more successful.”

However, the task of reaching some of the most remote and inhospitable regions of the planet remains.

“Logistically it’s super difficult,” Tollenaar said. “Dangerous, even. There are many areas where people have never been. It’s exploring our own planet while finding other planets.

Searching for meteorites, researchers turn to data-driven ‘treasure map’

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