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It Came from Outer Space!
The AA Meteorite Connection

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Author Contact Information

email Larry Rose at 


Students will discover why Antarctica is the most fruitful place on earth for locating meteorites. They will learn that the white background of the ice makes it easier to find meteorites than elsewhere on earth and that the biologically and mineralogically poor ice surface of Antarctica reduces the possibility of contamination of these precious astronomical specimens. The lesson has a hands on component modeling meteorite falls and collection, and an internet component in which students use the net to find out more about the meteorite- Antarctic connection.

Grade Level/Discipline
I use this activity in my earth science classes at the middle school. There are components that can be expanded for use in physical science classes at the high school and for upper elementary as well.

National Standards

Pre-activity set-up
Find an open space at your school site or a nearby park. Mark out the boundary of a square about 20 feet (6m.) on a side. You can use rope or masking tape. It doesn't have to be perfect. This represents the land surface of the earth. The ideal space would be one where there is both grass and dirt. Take about a square meter of white paper and fasten it down so that it won't blow in the wind. This represents the surface of Antarctica. Using several hundred black or red dried beans or some other biodegradable material roughly bean sized, distribute them relatively uniformly but randomly around your area including the white Antarctica region.

Rope or string or tape to outline a 20 foot square on the ground. Hundreds of dried red or black beans. A meter square of white paper. Maps of Antarctica.

Time Frame
2 One hour classes.

Engagement and Exploration (Student Inquiry Activity
Divide your class into four groups. Give each group a Museum or University Name. (The Smithsonians, The Kansas Staters, The American Museum of Natural Historians, The Bryn Mawr Geology Department, and so forth.) Tell them that each group is going to be allowed to comb the surface of the earth looking for meteorites, and that the group finding the most will be funded with big bucks to continue their research by NASA and the NSF.

Describe the world you have set up outside. Tell them that the beans represent meteorites. Tell them that each team will get 30 seconds to find meteorites. They are to pick two of their members to search while the others help from outside the square. The rest of the class can watch.

After the first team has had its turn, the teacher will help them count their meteorites, and then throw them back readying "the earth" for the next team, and so on.

Give out the Student Handout(see below).Have them fill it out and tell them that they will have to submit their answers as part of their final report for evaluation.

Discuss the class's answers. Do they all agree that Antarctica is the best place on earth for collecting meteorites? If not, or to convince them further, explain that the Antarctic Ice Sheet is like a conveyor belt. That after time a meteorite which has fallen in the center of the ice sheet finds itself transported to the coast as the glaciers and ice streams move. Then it is easy to collect them in virtual piles at the coast or along the front of the Transantarctic mountains. (MAP) Also explain that Antarctica only rarely, and only in some places, has liquid water ( a sometimes occurrence in the McMurdo Dry Valleys). Since liquid water is so rare there, there will be little chance for chemical weathering of the samples. Meteorites collected in Antarctica are pretty much, even after thousands of years of lying on the ice cap, the way they were when they hit the surface. Students may bring up the difficulty of working in Antarctica, that maybe they would rather search for meteorites on the French Riviera or on Maui. Smile and agree with them. But then say, let's look at teams of researchers at work collecting meteorites and doing other space related work in Antarctica. It is really not that bad and is one of the greatest adventures researchers can have.

Explanation (Discussing)
Explain the following to the class: Meteorites fall evenly all over the earth. Those that fall into the oceans are lost to scientific research. Those that fall on land offer us rare glimpses of the materials of the moon, Mars, The Asteroids and comets. They are precious to scientists and very rare.

OK! We all want to congratulate the _____team for their splendid work. They will get the NASA?NSF contract for continuing using their superb finding skills.

But now we'll go back to our table groups, and each table group will prepare a realistic Meteorite Search Plan for the Earth.

Elaboration (Polar Applications)
As teams in table groups, give the following assignment.

Using the Antarctic map and the internet outline a research mission to Antarctica which begins in November and ends in February, the austral summer. Your task is to journey from McMurdo Base to a location of your choice which you believe will yield quantities of meteorites. You are to write a series of collection protocols, strict rules which you will follow while collecting the meteorites to avoid any chance of contamination. How will you pick them up? In what sort of a container will you keep them? How will you protect them while transporting them back to your lab at home? Resources A great place to start your researches into this problem is the web page entitled "Planetary Materials Curation at NASA JSC". http://www-curator.jsc.nasa.gov/curator/curator.htm

Another place to start would be the journals of TEA Sue Bowman ../../tea_bowmanfrontpage.html

Sue went to Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole during the 98-99 season to work on the AMANDA Project which was designed to measure neutrino muons from space. Reading her journals will give you a feeling of what it's like to do astronomical research in Antarctica .

Exchange (Students Draw Conclusions)

Evaluation (Assessing Student Performance)
Students may be assessed through a report using the simple rubric below. An excellent report will include the student reproducible master and will also have a route map, a series of protocols, and a list of collection methods. It will also have a first person account from each of the members of your team about your experiences in Antarctica and about the collection of your samples.

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