Alastair Tait has spent years hunting for pieces of Mars. Recently, with six other science buffs, he put on an Akubra hat and hiking boots and visited the Nullarbor Plain.
“The Nullarbor because it is dry, the terrain doesn’t get covered by other sediments and it doesn’t erode away because it’s so flat,” said Alastair, a PhD candidate at Monash University.
More than 160 Martian meteorites have been found but none in Australia. “We want to be the first in Australia to find one,” Alastair said.
The Nullarbor is a favourite because its pale ochre soil is scattered with maroon coloured meteorites that are thousands of years old. Some the size of a small fingernail, others as big as a football.
“We want to find any astromaterials but a Martian meteorite is valuable to science because it could tell us if Mars was habitable,” he said.
Last year Alastair, a recent RACV member, took unusual measures to get the team to the Nullarbor. When private funding and grants ran out he turned to an Australian crowd-funding platform, Pozible.
Hoping to raise $4000 for one trip, the team got $12,000. “We now have a community of people following what we do,” Alastair said.
The team took two cars, a trailer packed with equipment and food for 12 days. The aims were to find Martian meteorites and to cut open any others they found to see if life from Earth had infiltrated any of them.
“Meteorites rust like a nail and can break down quickly … When they breakdown they suck up moisture from the atmosphere and become more humid than the outside environment. They become like mini lifeboats for micro-organisms that live inside the pores and cracks,” Alastair said.
Though they didn’t find a meteorite from Mars the trip was a huge success with 43 meteorites collected, the biggest tally in a single expedition to date. They plan to visit the Nullarbor again next year using the rest of the Pozible money.