Prospecting For Martian Gold In Antarctica
Undiscovered is a podcast from Science Friday and WNYC Studios about the left turns, missteps, and lucky breaks that make science happen. We tell the stories of the people behind the science, and the people affected by it. Listen to more episodes here.
Nina Lanza has one of those jobs you probably wish you had: She shoots lasers at Mars rocks from the “head” of NASA’s Curiosity rover to determine what they’re made of. But in December 2015, she found herself focused on another alien landscape, right here on Earth: Antarctica. Lanza had signed up to comb the blue ice sheets there for meteorites—including, perhaps, a chunk of Mars.
In the latest episode of SciFri’s new spinoff podcast, “Undiscovered,” co-hosts Annie Minoff and Elah Feder tell Lanza’s story, and trace the journey of mystery rock 23042, from its recovery in Antarctica to a space-rock CSI lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Subscribe here to listen to the full episode.
Annie Minoff is co-host and producer of Undiscovered. She also plays the banjo.
Elah Feder is co-host and producer of Undiscovered. She’s also Science Friday’s resident Canadian.
IRA FLATOW: Next up, if you haven’t heard the news, SciFri has a new spin-off podcast. It’s called “Undiscovered.” It’s all about the twists and turns and serendipity behind scientific discoveries, the kinds of stories that don’t make it into the news headlines and stories that are a little different from the stuff you hear on Science Friday each week. “Undiscovered” is long form. Think a magazine feature for your ears with music and sound design and great storytelling. And undiscovered just launched. We’ve got a new episode coming out every week. So I’d like to welcome back the show’s co-hosts, Annie Minoff and Elah Feder to give us a little taste of this week’s episode.
Welcome back, Annie and Elah. So what’s on this week? What have we got coming up?
ANNIE MINOFF: All right, so this week– oh, I haven’t got my mic on. You want to take that, Elah?
ELAH FEDER: Yeah, so this week we have a scientist named Nina Lanza. Nina is a geologist who works on the Curiosity Mars rover. So on the head of the rover, there’s a little laser and Nina remote controls this laser and shoots it at rocks on Mars to try to figure out what they’re made out of.
IRA FLATOW: Does she press a little button like a–
ELAH FEDER: It’s not a remote control. It would be really cool if it was. She tells me, no. So of course, this is a geologist who is studying rocks that are millions of miles away, right? She’s never going to be able to touch these rocks which must be kind of frustrating. As a geologist, you want to see the rocks you’re working with.
But there is this pretty cool phenomenon, where, you know, an impact will pop a little Mars rock off of the planet Mars. It goes, you know, hurtling through space, eventually lands on earth as a meteorite. And it turns out, one of the best places you can go to find these meteorites here on Earth is the middle of nowhere, Antarctica. And so in this episode, that is where Nina is. She’s there with her team. They’re looking for these little pieces of space rock in the Antarctic deep field. And they find one that’s a little mysterious. So this is really a mystery. We’re going to find out if this rock that they found is actually a new Martian sample. And we’re also gonna learn about just what it’s like to survive in this incredibly forbidding environment.
IRA FLATOW: I know. I’ve been down there. You have to worry about survival as a prime problem there.
ELAH FEDER: Right, yeah, and so a lot of this episode is kind of seeing the experience you had, seeing Antarctica through the eyes of a newbie and just being kind of surprised by all these little details. One of the details that Nina actually shared with me, which I bet this was the same experience you had. You know, the red, like, puffy parkas that you always see the scientists wearing in photos from Antarctica? So Nina told me that you actually get that puffy parka before you even set foot on the continent. They hand it to you in Christchurch, New Zealand and tell you to put it on before you go on the plane to go to the continent.
Here’s what you she said about that.
NINA LANZA: Because they don’t let you go to Antarctica unless you have Big Red, the big parka. I’m told that, you know, this is because in case the plane crashes, they want to make sure you have a chance of surviving exposure.
ELAH FEDER: Is that for real? Like, are people joking when they say that?
NINA LANZA: No, they’re not joking. I laughed, and they didn’t laugh. I was like, wait, what?
IRA FLATOW: When I was there, I didn’t laugh either when I was told. I tell you they take that very seriously.
This is “Science Friday,” from PRI, Public Radio International.
ELAH FEDER: Yes, so you have to obviously, be prepared when you go to Antarctica and especially to where Nina went. So as you know, Ira, there’s more than one kind of Antarctica. There’s the coast where you’ve got your penguins and your seals and it’s all very cute.
ANNIE MINOFF: McMurdo, cushy, cushy McMurdo.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah, this is like posh living, not really. But there’s also the deep field field, so the Trans Antarctic mountains, where Nina went. And in this episode, we’ll just play you an excerpt where she describes what that’s like.
NINA LANZA: There’s no trees. There are no human structures of any kind. There’s not any animals, not a single animal, not a bird, not an insect, nothing. And that’s very strange and very alien.
ANNIE MINOFF: Out here in the middle of Antarctica, even the ice is alien. It’s blue. These ice sheets, they’re so old, this ice is so compressed it reflects back blue light.
NINA LANZA: So I can’t really do justice to this color. It’s something I’d never seen in my life before. It is almost the same color as the sky and so on a beautiful cloudless day, sometimes it’s really hard to tell the difference between where the ice ends and the sky begins.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s hard to– it’s so beautiful, the ice, blue ice.
ANNIE MINOFF: You saw the blue ice.
IRA FLATOW: So you’re in Antarctica. Is it hard to find the meteorites? That’s your story. Your story’s a great story.
ANNIE MINOFF: So I guess if it were easy it wouldn’t be a great story. My expectation was that this would not be that hard, to be honest. Because you have a continent that’s essentially like a giant white ice sheet, right? You’re looking for a little black rock on a giant white field. Like it’s not, Where’s Waldo, was my expectation.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah, Annie’s a little over confident. So it turns out, it is a little like Where’s Waldo. Where Nina’s going, she’s going to these moraines, these big rocky fields. They’re full of rocks, a lot of earth rocks that have been scraped up by glaciers over thousands of years, and sprinkled in amongst all those earth rocks are a few meteorites.
So on the first day, Nina and the team, they go out and they’re basically, like, OK, go, Nina. Spot the meteorite. And I’m like OK, I can do this, right? So I’m like what about this? He’s, like nope. I’m like, how about this one? Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nina Lanza did not find any meteorites that day. And there were definitely meteorites there because, like, Morgan found two meteorites. She’s like, yeah. There’s one. I’m like, how do you know? How do you know?
IRA FLATOW: So can anyone do this? Go out there?
ANNIE MINOFF: Morgan certainly can. No, but I actually– so after listening and working with me on this episode, I gave Elah a test to see if she could spot the meteorite here, which I’m about to give to you, Ira. But I’m very happy to say that Elah passed.
So here you go. You’ve got a picture here. This is from Nina Lanza, of a moraine in Antarctica. There’s 65 rocks there.
ELAH FEDER: If you’re listening, we actually are tweeting this picture out, so you can hunt for yourself.
IRA FLATOW: It looks just like snow melting in my backyard on the gravel. That what it looks like. Which one is the–
ANNIE MINOFF: So we’ve got two meteorites in among those 65. What’s your guess?
IRA FLATOW: All right, I’ll just show you. I’m gonna guess it’s this one and this one.
ANNIE MINOFF: Wait, show us again.
IRA FLATOW: This one and this one.
ANNIE MINOFF: Oh, that’s pretty bad.
ELAH FEDER: Oh, that’s way off.
ANNIE MINOFF: All right, someone needs to listen to the episode again.
IRA FLATOW: Absolutely.
ANNIE MINOFF: So we’re looking for something that’s small and kind of shiny and black and rounded. And so if you’re listening at home, we’re gonna tweet out the results there. You can see how you did.
ELAH FEDER: And if you listen to this episode, I guarantee a 30% improvement in your proficiency.
ANNIE MINOFF: 30% guaranteed.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you Annie Minoff and Elah Feder of our new podcast, “Undiscovered.” we hope all you SciFri fans out there discover it and subscribe on your Apple or Android devices or wherever you get your audio fix. And you can visit the podcast at undiscoveredpodcast.org.