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February 28, 2011 — Astrophysicist Ray Jayawardhana trades telescope for snowmobile

by Sean Bettam — Tuesday, Mar 01, 2011

Spends six weeks collecting meteorites on the Antarctic Icesheet

February 28, 2011
Sean Bettam

Ray Jayawardhana in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics is someone who spends most of his time peering into the furthest reaches of outer space through telescopes, studying images and massive amounts of data collected through measurements of stars far away. Spending weeks on a snowmobile collecting meteorites on the Earth’s surface is not the type of research that he is accustomed to – especially when that surface is an ice field in Antarctica.

Astrophysicist Ray Jayawardhana on expedition in Antarctica. (Photo courtesy of Ray Jayawardhana)

The holder of the Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics, Jayawardhana explores the origin and diversity of planetary systems and the formation of stars and brown dwarfs. Why then would he spend nearly two months with a team of geologists and NASA scientists on an expedition collecting meteorites from the ice fields surrounding the South Pole?

“Meteorites provide clues, they are leftover debris from our own solar system's birth. Studying them is complimentary to what I do. But I’m not used to coming so close – within six inches – of the things I study.”

Sweeping the ice fields in Antarctica collecting meteorites. (Photo courtesy of Ray Jayawardhana)

Jayawardhana was part of a team of eight sweeping the icy terrain on Ski-Doos in a formation 30 metres apart on day-long explorations, stopping to examine and collect samples along the way. Antarctica is one of the best places on Earth to find meteorites, in part because the blue ice surface makes them quite easy to spot with the naked eye.

“I’m not a geologist, however, I was surprised at how quickly one learns to spot them,” he said. “Meteorites tend to not have sharp edges and have a so-called 'fusion' crust resulting from their journey through the Earth’s atmosphere.” Being able to quickly discern a meteorite from a run-of-the-mill rock from a moving snowmobile meant the group was able to cover several hundred kilometers of territory over the duration of the mission.

A meteorite found on the ice in Antarctica. (Photo courtesy of Ray Jayawardhana)

They collected more than 900 pieces which were immediately transferred to a materials lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre for analysis and classification. Jayawardhana expects to wait as long as a year for all the pieces to be properly examined. However, the team did identify certain specimens for rush processing based on some particular speculation, as there is always hope that some pieces have come from the moon or another planet. One piece in particular piqued their interest due to its transparent green crystal structure. Thinking that it might contain olivine, a mineral which has been found in the terrain of Mars, it was marked as a high priority and answers on that one are expected within a few months.

It was a fortuitous set of circumstances that brought Jayawardhana to the wintry locale, during what was actually the height of the Antarctic summer. “I had had an interest in it,” he said of the National Science Foundation and NASA-supported mission that had been running for 35 years, known as ANSMET (Antarctic Search for Meteorites program). “I met Ralph Harvey, the principal investigator from Case Western Reserve University, and asked if there was a chance of ever going.” When someone didn’t pass the physical in advance of the latest excursion, Jayawardhana’s number was called.

He describes the extended period of time living and working on the Antarctic Icesheet as psychologically and physically challenging. The team was based in one camp, from which they embarked on their daily excursions, living in pairs in tents in which they slept, cooked, ate and enjoyed periodic leisure time. “I read a book a week, we played card games, and a lot of Scrabble. It was fairly isolating, with only satellite phones and no Internet or other connections. It was a little bit tough to be off the grid for so long.”

Roughing it on the Antarctic Icesheet. (Photo courtesy of Ray Jayawardhana)

“We also participated in a NASA-funded psychology study about working in extreme environments. It really forces you to be self-aware and more aware of others.” The study looked at how individuals in small groups function and adapt over an extended period of isolation from the rest of society.

Jayawardhana was surprised it wasn’t harder to deal with the 24-hour sunlight. “I slept better than I thought I would,” he said. “And we managed to have a turkey dinner at Christmas and pizza on New Year’s Eve. You need to break the routine.” Although, he does admit that ringing in the new year with a sky full of sun was somewhat unusual.

“What I learned will inform how I look at time-scales of materials that pass through protoplanetary discs,” he said, referring to his method of observing and analyzing discs of gas and dust – the ingredients needed to create planetary systems – that circle young Sun-like stars. “We can combine the clues to build a fuller picture.”

Jayawardhana is about to embark on a junket of yet a different kind in support of his new book Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond Our Solar System, which offers an insider’s look at the cutting-edge science of today’s planet hunters, the prospects for discovering alien life, and the debate and controversies at the forefront of extrasolar-planet research. The book tour will take him to such spots as Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Pasadena, Seattle, London, and Melbourne.