Sunday, December 9, 2001

University of Hawaii

Meteorite trip
excites scientist

UH geologist Linda Martel will
head to Antarctica to hunt
for rocks from space

By Helen Altonn

University of Hawaii geologist Linda Martel, who wanted to be an astronaut as a little girl, will pursue her fascination with space in search of meteorites during a seven-week expedition in Antarctica.

"It's like a field trip to the moon and asteroids," she said. "I picture this as being in a space outpost."

An educational specialist in the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, Martel is scheduled to leave tomorrow to join nine other scientists on this year's Antarctic Search for Meteorites team.

The National Science Foundation, NASA and the Smithsonian Institution sponsor the annual expedition to search for clues to the origins of the solar system, planets and possible life on Mars.

This year, Martel said, the researchers will be able to interact with the outside world for the first time by satellite phone hookup. Students and others will be able to follow the expedition's progress and e-mail comments and questions to the team.

Martel, who works with HIGP colleague G. Jeffrey Taylor on public outreach and teacher workshops to take space science into the classroom, has been meeting with students "so they would know someone on the team and e-mail me questions. That is the real exciting part of this."

Nine other researchers from the UH School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology have participated in meteorite recovery expeditions.

Martel said she has an adventuresome spirit and has wondered what it would be like to be on the team. Taylor has encouraged her every year to volunteer, saying, "How could anyone pass up a chance to go to Antarctica?" But she hesitated for various reasons, she said.

Thinking "the time is right" and with 100 percent family support, she wrote in January to Ralph Harvey of Case Western Reserve University, principal investigator who has led the team for 14 years.

After Sept. 11, she said, "the idea of being so far from home was not very appealing." But her husband, Stephen, son Owen, 14, and daughter Leigh, nearly 12, pointed out in another family meeting that "all the reasons for wanting to go, the adventure of it, are still here."

Martel said she and her husband, also a geologist at HIGP, have done a lot of mountaineering in California's Sierra Nevada range and are experienced with wilderness camping. "But the longest I had to live in a tent was three weeks. This year it will be four weeks."

Although she's a planetary geologist, Martel said she hasn't done any research on meteorites. "I feel like this is a community service to meteorite researchers to find more samples for them. The focus is to get a large enough sample of everything that comes in (from space). Naturally, the hope is every year that something unusual will be found."

ANSMET teams since 1976 have recovered more than 10,000 meteorites from ice fields along the Transantarctic Mountains. The famous "Mars Rock" ALH84001, yielding evidence of possible fossil life, was collected in 1984.

The team this season will work in an area named Meteorite Hills, at the headwaters of the Darwin and Hatherton Glaciers, after 27 meteorites were recovered there in 1978. Another 38 were found in 1996.

Last year's team, which included UH postdoctoral researcher Ben Bussey, collected 750 specimens during partial searches of the ice field, prompting a return trip to that site this season.

The researchers will make preliminary examinations of rocks collected in the field, and meteorite specialists at NASA's Johnson Space Center and the Smithsonian Institution will provide final classifications before sending meteorites to researchers for detailed studies.

Scientists at HIGP are investigating samples from the asteroids, the moon and Mars under the leadership of institute director Klaus Keil.

Bussey, a geologist who studies the moon, described the logistics involved in getting to Christchurch, New Zealand, then McMurdo Sound, and showed her pictures and film clips of the remote area, she said.

She will spend about a week in orientation and survival school at McMurdo learning, among other things, how to drive and maintain a snowmobile. "That's the only thing I'm nervous about," she said.

Bussey and other UH scientists with experience in Antarctica have given her advice on how to care for herself physically in a cold, dry environment, she said, noting hand creams are a necessity because "skin cracks easily."

"I realize that, in addition to family and friends who I'll miss, I'm going to miss the night sky," she said. However, she's glad to be going to Antarctica in the summer, rather than winter with 24 hours of darkness, she added.

Since she'll also miss Christmas and New Year's, she's taking pictures with her of the family's tree. "Ben suggested I make extra copies so each tent will have a Christmas tree."

Co-editor with Taylor of Planetary Science Research Discoveries, an online science magazine, Martel will be reporting on Antarctica through that Web site: The expedition also can be followed on

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