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On the Meteorite Trail

15 December 1999 3:00 pm
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De la Ferrière on her way.

An intrepid Frenchwoman is skiing across virgin antarctic ice fields, looking for meteorites. On 22 November, Laurence de la Ferrière, 42, caught a lift to the South Pole, from which she set off on her 3000-kilometer trek. Pulling a gear-laden sledge that can deploy a sail for speed, de la Ferrière might just have what it takes to show that a "smaller, cheaper" approach to research actually can work.

In addition to collecting snow samples and feeding sensors with data on her body's adaptation to the cold, de la Ferrière--a mountain guide by trade who was briefed by scientists before her expedition--will keep her eyes peeled for micrometeorites--tiny chunks of space rock up to a centimeter in size--desired by scientists at the University of Paris. On Antarctica's ice sheet, "if you see any stone on the surface, it's likely to be a recently landed meteorite," says Michel Maurette, a meteorite expert at the University of Paris's Orsay campus. Because meteorites found in temperate latitudes are usually weathered and contaminated with earthly microbes by the time they are discovered, the ones de la Ferrière might bring home could be among "the most sterile and least corroded in the world."

After a slow start due to wind conditions, de la Ferrière by early December was reporting by radio that she was covering 50 or more kilometers a day. She's expected to pull up in late January at France's Durmont d'Urville research base on the Adélie Coast.

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