Arctic discovery may point the way to South Pole’s “lost meteorites”

Metal detecting mission in Svalbard could help find meteorites that hold clues to Earth’s formation

Scientists from Manchester University have successfully tested metal detecting technology at the UK NERC Arctic research station in Svalbard. The technology may help find meteorites in Antarctica, which are believed to hold clues about the very earliest days of the solar system, but which have so far escaped detection.


Meteorites, rocky fragments that enter the Earth’s atmosphere and survive to strike the surface (as opposed to meteors, which burn up completely in the atmosphere) are rich in iron. Although Antarctica is liberally littered with rocks, which are easy to find because they stand out against the background of light snow and ice, meteorites are notoriously difficult to find; it is thought that the sun’s rays warm the iron-rich material up more than more mineral-heavy deposits, and that the warm metal melts the surrounding ice, making the meteorites sink and become trapped just below the surface. Because meteorites are often relics from the cloud of debris that formed the sun and planets of the solar system – with iron meteorites particularly valuable because they come from the core of small planets that were destroyed by impacts – they are keenly sought by researchers; the pristine conditions of Antarctica would make them particularly valuable and their elusive nature is a matter of some frustration.

The Manchester team, based at the Ny-Ålesund Station on the Arctic island of Svalbard, is testing metal detecting equipment, in which the University has particular research strengths; it applies its expertise to optimising airport security, landmine removal, recycling, and non-destructive testing in manufacturing. The multidisciplinary team is led by applied mathematician Dr Geoffrey Evatt, and was funded by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust. The team published a paper in Nature about their research in 2016.The technology will now be used in an expedition to Antarctica in early 2020 with a preliminary visit next year. The full expedition will visit unexplored regions of inland Antarctica at three sites hundreds of kilometres from the nearest research stations, supported by the British Antarctic Survey in conditions expected to include freezing temperatures, gale force winds and mountainous terrain.

“I’m thrilled our testing at Ny-Ålesund worked,” said Dr Evatt. “We now have the opportunity to commence on a truly exciting scientific adventure. If successful, our expeditions will help scientists to decode the origins of the Solar System and cement the UK as a leader in meteoritics and planetary science.”

The metal detectors were developed in the unit that can be towed behind a Ski-Doo and are based on magnetic tomography techniques developed in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Tomography, mostly familiar from its application in medicine, is an imaging technique which works by using penetrating and electromagnetic waves to form images through sections of an object. It depends upon a mathematical procedure called tomographic reproduction, which reconstructs the images of slices according to how the waves are detected after taking different paths through the object.