The Meteorite Hunter
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ELAH FEDER: I’m Elah.
ANNIE MINOFF: And I’m Annie. And you’re listening to Undiscovered, a podcast about the backstories of science.
ANNIE MINOFF: So Elah, I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but I found as a science reporter, I’m always hearing about these jobs, like, these jobs that I never thought could be a job that someone could have.
ELAH FEDER: Right. And then you immediately want that job.
ANNIE MINOFF: And I immediately want that job.
ELAH FEDER: Mhm.
ANNIE MINOFF: And that was my first thought when I met Nina.
NINA LANZA: My name’s Nina Lanza, and I’m a staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. I work on a spaceship. With lasers. On Mars.
ANNIE MINOFF: Nina works on NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover. So it turns out Curiosity has a laser on its head. And Nina’s job is to shoot this laser at rocks, on Mars, to figure out what they’re made of.
ELAH FEDER: So her Twitter bio is actually “I shoot the lasers. Pew Pew.” Which is very charming.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yes.
ELAH FEDER: Anyway normally, Nina’s sitting at her desk in Los Alamos, and she’s remotely controlling this laser. So the rocks that she’s shooting at? They’re millions of miles away. She’s never gonna touch them. But there are some Mars rocks here on Earth that you can pick up. Actual chunks of Mars that fell to Earth... as meteorites.
ANNIE MINOFF: There’s about 100 of them, actually. And in December of 2015, Nina was searching for those meteorites in Antarctica. And while she was out on the ice, she and some scientists—they scooped up a rock. A weird one.
ELAH FEDER: So to the untrained eye, this probably wouldn’t look like anything.
ANNIE MINOFF: No.
ELAH FEDER: It was about five pounds. Dark grey on the outside. Its field number? 23042.
ANNIE MINOFF: And now, it’s nine months later, Nina’s back home in Los Alamos. And she’s still wondering—is 23042 a little chunk of the red planet? <<ring ring>> Which is why she’s on the phone with Cindy Evans.
CINDY EVANS: Hey Nina!
NINA LANZA: Hey Cindy!
ELAH FEDER: Cindy works at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, in a lab that does, essentially, space rock CSI. So mystery rock #23042—it’s actually sitting on Cindy’s desk right now, in a teflon bag.
CINDY EVANS: So it’s pretty big, it’s probably twice the size of my first. You’re gonna hear the bag crunching as I turn it over…. <<crunching sounds>>
ELAH FEDER: So today on Undiscovered, we’re going to follow the journey of that rock—23042—from an ice sheet in Antarctica to Cindy’s desk in Houston.
ANNIE MINOFF: And we’re gonna get to know the rookie explorer who helped pick up that rock—Nina Lanza—as she battles one of the coldest, starkest, most isolated environments on earth. And we’re gonna answer the big question—is 23042 a little piece of Mars?
<<theme song plays>>
ANNIE MINOFF: So, rewind. It’s December 14, 2015. And somewhere in the middle of the transantarctic mountains, a twin-propeller plane has just landed on a runway of tamped-down snow.
ELAH FEDER: Some researchers hop out and one of them is Nina Lanza. She’s wearing this giant puffy red parka.
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.
ANNIE MINOFF: 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?
ELAH FEDER: Suddenly, this reasoning makes perfect sense. There is nothing out here. Not a human settlement for 400 miles. Nothing but the layered red-black rock of the Antarctic mountains.
NINA LANZA: There’s no trees. There are no human structures. Of any kind. There’s not any animal, not a single animal. Not a bird, not an insect, nothing. And— 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 are 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 had never seen in my life before. It— 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.
ELAH FEDER: But there’s no time to stand gawking. In the Antarctic deep field, the wind will knock the air out of your lungs—freeze your water bottle in minutes. So Nina and her teammates get to work. They pitch their yellow scott tents, light the camp stove, test the satellite phone. They’ve got the basics.
ANNIE MINOFF: And now, their only way out of this place—that twin-propeller plane—it’s flying off into the bright, Antarctic day, into a sun that won’t set the entire five weeks Nina’s here. Now? Nina Lanza is really, truly out there.
ELAH FEDER: So why is Nina out there?
ANNIE MINOFF: It’s because of a letter. A few months ago, Nina actually wrote a paper letter that she sent to the Antarctic Search For Meteorites program, at Case Western Reserve University.
ELAH FEDER: Wow. Let’s call it ANSMET, for short.
ANNIE MINOFF: ANSMET for short. And in that letter, she made the case for why she—Nina Lanza—should be on this ice sheet, right now. So, yes, she would spend five weeks in the middle of nowhere with seven mostly strangers, she would live in a tent, she would brave sub-zero temperatures, all to be part of this ANSMET team. A team that’s collected about a third of all the rocks we humans have from space. No, she’d never been to Antarctica. She didn’t know the first thing about picking up meteorites. But she’d learn.
ELAH FEDER: So as for why you’d ever sign up for this? Well, remote-controlling a Mars rover, it’s great.
ANNIE MINOFF: It might actually be the best job ever.
ELAH FEDER: It’s pretty good. But rovers have limitations. Nina says, sometimes, Curiosity Rover will, you know, rove over towards a rock—
NINA LANZA: And we’ll do everything we can, and we still have questions. And those questions will never be answered. Because we can’t answer them with the payload that we have. It’s so much better to have a rock in your hand.
ANNIE MINOFF: And there are just two ways to get a new Martian rock in your hand. Go to Mars.
ELAH FEDER: That’s out. For now.
ANNIE MINOFF: Or wait for gravity to hand-deliver a Martian rock to you. For free!
ELAH FEDER: And it’s not just chunks of Mars that land on Earth. It’s asteroids, sometimes it’s bits of the moon or comets—
ANNIE MINOFF: Up to 17,000 of these space rocks fall to Earth every year. 17,000 clues a year!
ELAH FEDER: Which is a lot of clues. And yet, even with these rocks falling onto us from space, it took scientists an impressively long time to come to grips with this idea. So the theory back in the 1700s was that these rocks that they’re seeing, these very strange rocks, were just regular Earth rocks that got hit by lightning. Aka “thunderstones.”
ANNIE MINOFF: Thunderstones. But in 1803, something happens that these scientists cannot ignore. A globe of fire appears in the sky outside the village of L’Aigle, France, followed by six minutes of rumbling. The people who hear it say it’s like a carriage rolling over cobblestones.
ELAH FEDER: That’s, wait, like a ball—
ANNIE MINOFF: A ball of fire.
ELAH FEDER: Oh.
ANNIE MINOFF: So that ball of fire was an exploding meteorite. And it drops about 3,000 space rocks on L’Aigle France. 29 year-old scientist Jean-Baptiste Biot travels from Paris to investigate.
REENACTMENT: Everyone agrees in saying that the stones smoked on the spots in which they had fallen. When brought inside the houses, they released an odor of sulfur so disagreeable that they had to be brought outside again.
ANNIE MINOFF: The observers may have been—quote—
REENACTMENT: —simple and rough peasants—
ANNIE MINOFF: Nevertheless, all reported that the shower—
REENACTMENT: —happened on the same day, in the same hour, in the same moment.
ELAH FEDER: Can’t dismiss that many peasants and 3000 rocks.
ANNIE MINOFF: And that seemed to settle it, right? These rocks were from space.
ELAH FEDER: So today, here’s what we know about how meteorites get here. Out there, in space, something slams into a planet, or a comet, or an asteroid. Slams into it hard, catapulting a chunk of rock into a strange, elliptical orbit around the sun.
ANNIE MINOFF: And at some point, that rock gets a little too close to Earth—and gets sucked in by Earth’s gravity. If it survives the hot, melty trip through Earth’s atmosphere, it hits the ground as a meteorite. And these things fall randomly. All over the world. So, why would you go to middle-of-nowhere Antarctica to find them? Possibly the most inconvenient place you could go? The answer has to do with that blue ice.
ELAH FEDER: Those blue ice sheets are meteorite gold mines. So over millions of years, meteorites have fallen onto Antarctica, just like elsewhere on Earth, but in Antarctica they get trapped in this blue ice. When those ice sheets run into the mountain range? All that old glacier ice gets forced up to the surface.
ANNIE MINOFF: And this is where Antarctica’s totally insane winds kick in. We’re talking 100 mile an hour winds. These winds pummel this old ice—just vaporize it. And it uncovers all these trapped space rocks. What you end up with? Are thousands of years worth of meteorites. Just sitting on the ice. Waiting for someone to pick them up.
ELAH FEDER: In some places in Antarctica, the density of meteorites is so high that literally every few steps you take, it’s another space rock. THAT’s why you go to Antarctica.
ANNIE MINOFF: Except Antarctica? It doesn’t always play along.
ELAH FEDER: Field diary, day one.
NINA LANZA (FIELD RECORDING): <<wind sounds>> So today is our first full day in the field and it’s already a tent day. That’s a day where you don’t spend a lot of time outside of the tent doing anything because the winds are so strong here. It’s hard to describe that sound, you probably can hear it.
ANNIE MINOFF: The other sound you can hear? That’s actually the hiss from Nina’s camp stove. But yeah—it’s mostly wind.
NINA LANZA (RECORDING): But it’s just like somebody’s wailing on this tent.
ANNIE MINOFF: One day into the field season, Antarctica is showing its teeth. Within 24 hours of Nina actually landing out here, the weather goes from exciting, to thrilling, to insane.
ELAH FEDER: This wind would reach 62 miles an hour. That’s strong enough to force snow through Nina’s tent zipper.
ANNIE MINOFF: Like through the little piece.
NINA LANZA (RECORDING): So I woke up and there’s a big snow pile inside the tent!
ELAH FEDER: Inside! She exits the tent to take the temperature and moments later, she’s knocked flat by a wind gust.
ANNIE MINOFF: Oh yeah, did we mention it’s cold?
NINA LANZA (RECORDING): So for example, I forgot to take my contact lenses and solution <<wind whipping>> into my sleeping bag with me before going to bed, this morning I woke up and they were frozen solid. Turns out, you can actually still wear your contacts after they’ve been frozen in a block of ice.
ELAH FEDER: For two days, Nina and her tent mate Morgan, they’re basically tent bound. They can read. They can cook. They can binge watch Firefly.
ANNIE MINOFF: Cuz one of the perks of Antarctic exploration these days? You can bring your laptop.
ELAH FEDER: They do sneak outside sometimes to grab food from their storage boxes and make the treacherous journey to the—
NINA LANZA (RECORDING): Poo tent! That’s its official name. And inside that tent we have a bucket and then we have some magazines. There’s some New Yorkers, there’s an Outside Magazine.
ELAH FEDER: Who reads Outside Magazine when they’re like deeply outside, like—
ANNIE MINOFF: Right?
NINA LANZA (RECORDING): There’s some scented candles, you know it’s actually rather nice.
ANNIE MINOFF: Like, okay, sorry. A person sitting on the poo bucket smelling the perfumed candle, reading Outside Magazine in the middle of an Antarctic wind storm. <<Elah laughs>> Just take a moment with that. Okay, but eventually, the storm clears. These winds will die down. And five days into the field season, it is finally time to hunt meteorites.
ELAH FEDER: Field diary, day five.
NINA LANZA (FIELD RECORDING): <<hiss sound>> So today, we went searching for meteorites for the first time! And it was— it was totally different than I expected it to be. I think part of it was, you know, people had told me that it was going to be just driving around on the ice and picking up rocks, which, I think it essentially is. But we went searching in a moraine, which is a bunch of rocks that have been scoured by a glacier—
ELAH FEDER: As glaciers move over Antarctica, they scrape up just regular earth rocks. And they collect them in these big, rocky fields called moraines.
ANNIE MINOFF: In a moraine, you could be looking at tens of thousands of Earth rocks—with maybe a few space rocks sprinkled in.
NINA LANZA: So we’re in this place which has, you know, one kajillion rocks? I think that’s the actual number, somebody counted. One kajillion rocks.
ANNIE MINOFF: One of the veterans on the team he tells the newbies, including Nina LANZA: Go find a meteorite.
NINA LANZA: I’m like, okay, what? Like, okay. And so, you know, I had gotten a description. So meteorites, they’re dark. And they’re shiny.
ELAH FEDER: And round. When a meteorite falls through Earth’s atmosphere, it actually melts a little bit. All its rough edges will melt off, and it forms this glassy crust on the outside. It kind of looks like the rock’s been laminated.
ANNIE MINOFF: If the rock you’re looking at happens to be broken open, you can look inside for these little round beads. They look like kind of tiny marbles inside. Those marbles mean you’ve got a super old meteorite called a chondrite.
ELAH FEDER: Oh yeah, and meteorites are usually magnetic. They’re chock-full of iron. So you can try dragging your rock around with a magnet. Worth a shot.
NINA LANZA: And I’m like, okay! 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. Heh. And there were definitely meteorites there, cause, like, Morgan found two meteorites! She’s like, yeah. There’s one. I’m like, how do you know?! How do you know?
ELAH FEDER: So here’s the thing about these quote unquote rules. Every single one of them can be broken. So those glassy crusts—they sometimes wear off. And the rarest meteorites don’t have those tiny marbles in them.
ANNIE MINOFF: But pretty much every meteorite hunter who I talked to—they said there is one surefire way to determine whether you pick up that rock. You ask Johnny.
<<theme song plays>>
ELAH FEDER: Coming up, we meet the gold prospector who’s picked up more meteorites than any other human.
ANNIE MINOFF: He’s got an asteroid named after him.
NINA LANZA: —and he does remember every rock he’s ever seen—
ANNIE MINOFF: Coming up, the secrets of meteorite hunting revealed by the guy who should know.
ELAH FEDER: Field diary, day eight.
ANNIE MINOFF: One of Nina’s recordings starts with a pour from a bottle.
JOHNNY SCHUTT: <<pouring bottle>> And it really is true. I’ve known some of the old-time prospectors—
ANNIE MINOFF: The team’s gathered in their science tent. Eight people squished together on packing crates, sipping the last of the good booze. A man with a gravelly voice is talking about the prospectors he’s known, up in Alaska and Canada.
JOHNNY SCHUTT: One guy was 102 when he finally died, and he was out prospecting
VARIOUS SPEAKERS: Jeez! Wow!
ANNIE MINOFF: And then he starts to read.
JOHNNY SCHUTT: The Spell of the Yukon. I wanted the gold and I sought it. I scrabbled and mucked like a slave. If there was a famine or scurvy, I fought it and hurled my youth into a grave.
ELAH FEDER: This is Johnny. The poem—“The Spell of the Yukon” by Robert Service—it’s about a young prospector who goes up to the Yukon to during the gold rush to make his fortune. And he does! He finds gold. And then he heads back home to live the good life.
JOHNNY SCHUTT: Yet somehow, life’s not what I thought it. And somehow, the gold isn’t all.
ELAH FEDER: Because even with all this wealth, he’s not happy back home. He can’t shake that Yukon wilderness.
JOHNNY SCHUTT: —There’s land, oh, it beckons and beckons. And I want to go back and I will.
ELAH FEDER: So, the prospector fritters away his fortune, and goes back to the Yukon. Goes gold hunting again.
JOHNNY SCHUTT: —Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting, so much as just finding the gold. It’s the great big broad land way up yonder. It’s the forests where silence has lease. It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder. And the stillness that fills me with peace.
SPEAKER 1: So Johnny is that you? <<Everyone laughs>>
JOHNNY SCHUTT: Pretty close! <<Everyone laughs>>
ANNIE MINOFF: John Schutt is in his sixties. He’s a bespectacled guy, with a short white beard, and a ponytail. He has, in fact, prospected for gold up in Alaska.
ELAH FEDER: But that’s not why he’s a legend. In almost 40 years of hunting, Johnny’s found more meteorites than any person in history. Not that he’d tell you that. He’s not a boaster.
ANNIE MINOFF: All Johnny’ll say is, over years of looking at rocks, he’s built up a mental catalogue.
JOHNNY SCHUTT: —just that mental catalogue of all the subtleties and colors, and shapes and sizes, you know, in my head—
ANNIE MINOFF: So when Johnny finds a rock, it’s not just that he’s checking off a list of characteristics. He’s flipping through that mental catalogue asking, ‘have I seen this before?’
NINA LANZA: And he does remember every rock he’s ever seen. It would not surprise me. He could, like, list all 20 thousand of them.
ELAH FEDER: So this is how you really learn to find meteorites. You ask Johnny. You watch what he picks up, you figure out why. And eventually—it pays off.
ANNIE MINOFF: Field diary, day six.
NINA LANZA (FIELD RECORDING): So we’re just about to head to bed. It’s super warm here in Antarctica. So, we went out searching for meteorites, and we found some, and I was so excited that I was able to spot one on the ice—
ELAH FEDER: Now excited might be an understatement. Months later, Nina still gets worked up talking about this.
NINA LANZA: It felt amazing to find a meteorite. Cause you wonder. You’re like you know, I know they say that everyone can find meteorites, but maybe I’m the person who can’t find meteorites. I’m the worst ANSMET volunteer of all time. Like, there’s always gonna be one. It could be me! <<Annie laughs>> So I mean I was just like, I know it! This is a meteorite! I got this! Like it was a classic meteorite. And I drove right up to it. <<Nina laughs>> I was so excited.
ELAH FEDER: The rock was a chondrite. The most common type of meteorite and the oldest. When the chondrites were forming, the planets were still globs of interstellar dust and gas. They were clumping together, forming these larger and larger globs. And the leftover bits? Those are the chondrites.
ANNIE MINOFF: The first meteorite that was ever discovered in Antarctica? It was actually a chondrite. In 1912, you have a mustachioed Englishman named Frank Bickerton. He’s in Antarctica, essentially trying to invent the snowmobile. The skadoo. Which is a total bust. But one day, he and his men are heading back to camp when—
REENACTMENT: <<snow crunching sounds>> A piece of rock which we took to be a meteorite, was found on the surface of the snow. It measured approximately five inches by three inches and was covered with a black scale.
ANNIE MINOFF: But Bickerton’s find becomes a side-note. The story most people tell is about Bickerton's three teammates. It’s the classic Antarctic tale of woe, a series of truly unfortunate events.
ELAH FEDER: The men were surveying glaciers. When suddenly, one man’s dogsled plunged down a crevasse—a 150 foot-deep gash in the glacier. The team’s food and tent went down with him. The two men left behind had to eat their sled-dogs to survive, inadvertently poisoning themselves with the vitamin A in the dogs’ livers. Only one of the three made it back alive. And the thing is, Antarctic history is just riddled with stories like this. And what’s surprising isn’t how much has changed in 100 years. It’s what hasn’t.
ANNIE MINOFF: Satellite phones, and planes, and better gear, they do wonders for safety. And let it be known: No one’s ever died on an ANSMET trip. But crevasses, like the one that Bickerton’s teammate fell into? Those still lurk under the snow. Last year, a climate researcher was killed when he fell into one. In the deep field, storms can keep rescue plane away for hours or days. Johnny and Nina both told me—Antarctica? It’s not a place where humans are really meant to be.
NINA LANZA: And, you know, Antarctica makes that clear all the time. The wind just doesn’t care about you. It can tear your tent apart. It’ll tear you apart. It, you know, you can feel the power that’s behind it. I guess it doesn’t feel malevolent. It’s not like Antarctica is out to get you. But it’s like you don’t matter at all. You are nothing out there.
ELAH FEDER: And it’s not just the physical danger—the wind, the cold, the constant discomfort. It’s this feeling of being completely cut off. In a way that feels almost impossible at home.
NINA LANZA: You’re so isolated out there in the field. I mean, so isolated. And it’s in every possible way.
ELAH FEDER: There’s no internet. No email. No texts. The only news you get comes from very expensive satellite phone calls home. You are alone.
ANNIE MINOFF: Or more accurately, according to the team’s science lead Jim Karner, you are alone in very, very close quarters with one complete stranger.
ELAH FEDER: Your tent-mate.
JIM KARNER: You are actually living with someone that is not your spouse, and you’re living basically for six weeks with them, sleeping right next to them, and cooking with them every night. So it’s a very kind of odd situation for most adults I think. I mean, when do we ever do that?
ANNIE MINOFF: Here’s when we might do that? On a spaceship. Headed to Mars.
ELAH FEDER: It turns out NASA thinks Antarctica’s a pretty good analogue for a Mars mission. That’s why every night, Nina would fill out a journal for these psychologists at Michigan State University. They’re trying to understand the stresses people face in places like this. Because emotionally? Antarctica is like being on another planet.
NINA LANZA: You just—we are surrounded by people who love us. Most of us are lucky enough to have a family and friends, people who can provide, you know, for a lot of our emotional needs and support us in ways that we don’t even understand. Until they’re gone. Until they’re just not there anymore. You know, the networks that you’ve built up over your whole life are suddenly, just not— not close anymore.
ANNIE MINOFF: Field diary, day twelve. Christmas.
<<Skidoos in background>>
NINA LANZA (FIELD RECORDING): Good morning from Miller Ridge, Antarctica—
ELAH FEDER: So it’s Christmas morning for the ANSMET crew and the team’s out hunting meteorites on their snowmobiles.
ANNIE MINOFF: Imagine eight scientists in puffy parkas, sitting on these yellow skidoos. They’re all spread out in a line. Like lanes of traffic. They’re driving forward about as fast as you can speed walk. Everyone’s scanning their lane for rocks.
ELAH FEDER: And then Jim Karner, the science lead, he’s riding along the edge of the ice sheet, when he notices something.
JIM KARNER: There was a rock there that was kinda buried in the snow but very close to the ice. And it was round, it looked like a meteorite. But when I kinda dug it out of the snow, I thought oh, it’s just a terrestrial rock.
ELAH FEDER: It didn’t look like a meteorite. The rock was grey, not black. There was no glassy crust.
JIM KARNER: But something was kinda nagging at me. It was really spherical.
ANNIE MINOFF: So Jim does what you do in these situations. He asks Johnny.
ELAH FEDER: Johnny who never forgets a rock.
JOHNNY SCHUTT: Well, it was sort of grey-ish, with small white crystals distributed throughout it.
JIM KARNER: —coarse, crystalline interior that in the past that’s kind of looked like maybe a Martian volcanic rock.
ELAH FEDER: The rock was volcanic, so in geology lingo, a basalt. And the reason’s Jim’s a little excited now, is that basalt means it came from a planet. Asteroids don’t usually have basalts. Mars has basalts.
ANNIE MINOFF: Then again, so does Earth. But then Johnny says—
JOHNNY SCHUTT: That’s— that— we have to collect this.
JIM KARNER: He said, ‘I’m not sure if it’s a meteorite or not, but it’s certainly not like any terrestrial rocks we’ve seen around this area.’
ANNIE MINOFF: Johnny had paged through that mental catalogue. And a guy who’s seen everything, had not seen this rock. Not here.
JIM KARNER: —then the excitement builds, because then you start speculating on <<laughs>> what it could be, you know, if it could be Martian or whatever. Those are the highest hopes.
ANNIE MINOFF: And for now, all Jim, Johnny, and Nina have is speculation. To really know where this rock came from, it’ll have to go all the way to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Cindy Evans and the space rock CSI team will have to do their analysis. Cut a thin section. Examine it through an electron microscope.
ELAH FEDER: Nine months from now, Cindy Evans will know the answer to this rock mystery. And Nina will be able to call her for the official verdict. But on this Christmas morning, all the team can do is carefully bag the rock. And give it a number. 23042.
NINA LANZA (FIELD RECORDING): Sort of, yeah. Hm.
ANNIE MINOFF: It’s later that night, the team’s gathered in the science tent for Christmas dinner.
ELAH FEDER: There’s some tinsel strung up. Someone made a christmas star out of tin foil.
ANNIE MINOFF: At home, Nina’s not a big Christmas person. But in Antarctica, cut off from everything familiar, she says she missed the holiday more than she expected. Missed the thing that, as a long-time singer, she loves about this holiday: Christmas carols.
NINA LANZA: I was like, look. I don’t know if anyone’s gonna be into this, but I’m just, just in case, I’m gonna bring some sheet music and a pitch pipe. People, maybe they’re not into it, but maybe if it’s all right here and so easy to do, like, maybe we’ll just sing some songs! You know, no pressure, no pressure. So, like, I was hoping. I was really hoping.
NINA LANZA (FIELD RECORDING): Okay, ready? <<everyone starts singing, haltingly at first, scattered laughing>> Shepherds why this jubileeeee / Why your joyous strains prolong—
NINA LANZA: It turns out Kahn is a secret singer! And he’s got this beautiful tenor voice. I was like, wow! Why did no one tell me this before? This is amazing.
NINA LANZA: And then like Jim Karner comes out of nowhere, like, having a really lovely voice too! Jim is not somebody I thought was— I was gonna convince to sing. But Jim was like let’s do this!
I felt like the team really supported me in that way, because like it obviously was much more of my thing than it was anyone else’s thing, but they were willing to support me because they knew how important that was to me, and how much I was enjoying it.
SPEAKER 2: <<whispers>> I’m tired.
ANNIE MINOFF: Stopping to share food, and songs, supporting each other—it’s important in Antarctica. But it’s gonna be even more important on Mars.
ELAH FEDER: The first Mars astronauts will spend something like two and a half years with their crewmates—or more. Christmas calls home will come with a delay of up to 24 minutes—and that’s just one way. When you’re on Mars, your support will have to come from your team. Because there is no one else. 23042 would stay frozen, packed in its bag, all the way back to McMurdo Station. It would stay frozen for months, in a container ship, on its way to California. Frozen in a FedEx truck all the way to Johnson Space Center in Houston. Where finally, Cindy Evans unpacks it.
ANNIE MINOFF: And then, last September, Nina and I gave Cindy a call. To get the official word on 23042.
ANNIE MINOFF: So, the question of the hour, I’ll just put to you Cindy. Is 23042 from space?
CINDY EVANS: So, the short answer is, no, unfortunately it’s a terrestrial basalt.
NINA LANZA: Oh man!
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah I know. Bummer.
CINDY EVANS: But I mean, it was a weirdo, yeah. So— so, but the thing is we were all strung out, on a line for, for months. There was a lot of people in the office that were pulling for it first to be Martian and then to be lunar.
NINA LANZA: Oh man!
ANNIE MINOFF: Was there money on the table?
CINDY EVANS: No, there was not money on the table. <<all laugh>> That was suggested, but it never happened.
ANNIE MINOFF: So how’d it get there? Sorry Nina!
ELAH FEDER: So here’s Cindy’s best guess. 23042 comes from Antarctica. Potentially very far away in Antarctica. Its round shape isn’t from coming through the atmosphere. It’s from being rolled along by a glacier for potentially hundreds of thousands of years.
ANNIE MINOFF: We know 23042 isn’t Martian, because of the mix of oxygen isotopes in it. It doesn’t match the mix in Mars rocks. But it does match Earth rocks. And I was pretty bummed about this. Because, for me, there’d been something extremely poetic about the idea that Nina, who spends literally every day probing a planet that is millions of miles away, could have actually happened on a piece of that planet. Actually touched it! With sterilized tongs. But Nina? She bounced right back.
NINA LANZA: You know, that’s just part of—that’s just part of meteorite hunting, right?
ANNIE MINOFF: And right away, she’s asking Cindy, okay, what else we got?
NINA LANZA: I’m just curious, like, uh, about the potential HED meteorites did you guys take a look at those?
CINDY EVANS: Oh we did, and actually there were at least three that we announced.
NINA LANZA: What?! That’s crazy!
CINDY EVANS: That’s crazy, yes.
ELAH FEDER: An HED meteorite is from the asteroid Vesta. Vesta’s the second biggest asteroid in the asteroid belt. It’s about the length of Arizona. And Vesta meteorites are rare. Not Mars rare. But rare. It’s a good get.
CINDY EVANS: They’re beautiful. So there were three eucrites and and one diogenite, that were—
NINA LANZA: What!
ANNIE MINOFF: Translation: Cindy’s saying there’s actually four. Four Vesta meteorites.
ELAH FEDER: What!
NINA LANZA: What! That’s— that’s awesome. I mean all meteorites are a success, but wow. Four Vesta meteorites. I’m really— I’m really pleased. Good for us. High five!
CINDY EVANS: Yeah good work team ANSMET!
ANNIE MINOFF: Nina knows how hard meteorite hunting is now. She understands the isolation, the physical demands. But when I asked her if she’d go back, she didn’t even hesitate. Of course she’d go back.
ELAH FEDER: And that’s not unusual. Jim Karner, who spotted 23042, he says pretty much 100 percent of people who go on these meteorite expeditions once, they re-apply. And it’s not just the landscape, and the quiet, and the out-there-ness that draws people back. Jim says meteorite hunting scratches a very primal itch.
JIM KARNER: You know, there’s hunters of all type of sorts. Fossil hunters, gold hunters, treasure hunters. You know, even coin collectors and stamp collectors are always looking for that elusive and rare piece to fit in their collections.
ANNIE MINOFF: We are a collecting species. Driven on by the promise that the next rock we pick up is going to be the one that changes everything. Like the prospector in the poem:
JOHNNY SCHUTT (FIELD RECORDING): Yet it’s not the gold that I’m wanting, so much as just finding the gold.
ANNIE MINOFF: It’s why meteorite hunters from all over the world have picked up 50,000 space rocks in Antarctica. And It’s why we will go to Mars. To feel that rock in our hand. Instead of just combing the ice for whatever gravity tosses our way. But until we’re on Mars? The meteorite hunters will keep searching, keep prospecting, looking for that piece of Martian gold.
<<theme music plays>>
ANNIE MINOFF: Undiscovered is reported and produced by me, Annie Minoff.
ELAH FEDER: And me, Elah Feder. Our editor is Christopher Intagliata. Special shoutout this week to Ari Daniel, our story consultant, and to Alistair Gardiner and Charles Bergquist for voice acting.
ANNIE MINOFF: Thanks also to Danielle Dana, Christian Skotte, Brandon Echter, Rachel Bouton, and Sarah Fishman. We had fact-checking help by Michelle Harris. Original music is by Daniel Peterschmidt. I am Robot and Proud wrote our theme.
ELAH FEDER: And special thanks to our launch partner, the John Templeton Foundation. Find more Undiscovered on Twitter @undiscoveredpod or on our website, undiscoveredpodcast.org.