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Rutgers scientist's big adventure near the South Pole in search of meteorites

Juliane Gross will spend up to eight weeks near the South Pole.

Rutgers University scientist Juliane Gross trained on a Ski-doo in Cleveland to prepare for her two-month excursion to Antarctica
Rutgers University scientist Juliane Gross trained on a Ski-doo in Cleveland to prepare for her two-month excursion to AntarcticaRead moreCourtesy of Juliane Gross

To prepare for a two-month excursion in Antarctica, Rutgers University scientist Juliane Gross had to undergo an extensive dental exam with X-rays — in case she needed treatment before heading down there, she assumed.

That was only part of it, trip organizers told her. The X-rays also were required in case rescuers needed to identify her body.

"I did not tell my parents that part," she said.

Gross leaves Sunday for the first leg of her trip to the remote Transantarctic Mountains, less than 300 miles from the South Pole. She and team members are on the hunt for meteorites — rocks from outer space that can yield valuable clues about the history of our solar system.

The NASA-funded project, managed by Case Western Reserve University, has recovered more than 21,000 meteorites since 1976. These excursions are sometimes called "the poor person's space mission," as the cost is a small fraction of the price tag for an actual trip to outer space.

But team members may well feel as if they have journeyed to another world.

Gross, an associate professor of earth and planetary sciences at Rutgers, heads first to Christchurch, New Zealand, where she spends a few days before another flight to McMurdo Station, a U.S. research facility at the edge of Antarctica. On the agenda at McMurdo are extensive safety training and lessons in how to fix a Ski-doo — the kind of snowmobile that she and her fellow scientists will use at their eventual camp site.

From there, the eight-member team flies toward the center of the polar continent, to Shackleton Glacier Camp, named for early 20th-century polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. Then they switch to smaller planes for the final leg of the journey to Mount Cecily and Mount Raymond, which Shackleton named after his daughter and elder son.

It will be spring and summer on Antarctica while the group is there, but the temperatures are still well below freezing, with winds sometimes approaching 40 miles an hour.

Meteorites can fall anywhere on earth, but these Antarctic mountains are prime hunting ground for two reasons.

First, the dark rocks show up well on the icy white background, and there is little native rock to confuse it with. As the mission's official website states: "Go to the right place, and any rock you find must have fallen from the sky."

Second, meteorites carried by the natural flow of ice sheets tend to get trapped against the mountains and pushed to the surface for easy discovery, geologists have found. And the environment is cold and  relatively free of any contaminants that might interfere with scientific analysis.

Seeking to maintain that pristine condition, the researchers will handle the rocks with tongs and pack them carefully in bags for transport to a freezer at base camp.

"We cannot touch them," Gross said of the meteorites. "We cannot breathe on them. We can't have the Ski-doos anywhere near them."

Gross hopes to find meteorites from the moon or Mars, with the goal of learning more about the history and formation of those celestial bodies, while other team members are more interested in meteorites that predate the planets.

But the rocks belong to NASA, and any analysis has to wait until the samples are shipped to an agency facility in Houston. Even then, the team members get no special priority. Anyone who wants to analyze the rocks, whether or not they helped find them, must submit research proposals for agency approval.

The reason for going on the trip is simply to contribute to the greater cause of science, Gross said. NASA covers most of her expenses, but she gets no payment beyond that.

Other than the thrill of journeying to a place that she and team members called "the bottom of the world."

Keep up with the team's blog at