Outer Places

Sometimes you don’t need to launch a new satellite or conduct a new experiment to make a new discovery—in the case of Ganymede and the Galileo satellite or the recent study on quantum bacteria, all the data was already there, waiting to be discovered. Now, scientists have sorted through old data from the GOCE (Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer) satellite, whose mission ended in 2013. Based on the gravitational information pulled from it, we now have a new picture of what Antarctica looks like beneath the ice—including previously hidden continents.

The research focused on identifying two major geologic features: cratons and orogens. The Oxford English Dictionary describes cratons as “large, stable [blocks] of the earth’s crust forming the nucleus of a continent,” while orogens are the folded portions of tectonic plates that might eventually become mountains ranges. These two features are vital to picking apart Antarctica’s tectonic “story,” since cratons help scientists distinguish between ancient continents that have now crashed into one another, while orogens can help mark the boundaries between them.

Believe it or not, the GOCE satellite was sensitive enough to form a picture of Antarctica’s landscape by gauging the gravitational pull of different portions. The resulting image allowed scientists to spot geologic differences that give clues to where its constituent continents might have come from—according to Popular Mechanics: “…East Antarctica is a patchwork of old cratons and younger orogens. The researchers found similar structures in Australia and India. West Antarctica, on the other hand, has a thinner and more homogeneous crust more closely resembling the southern tip of South America.”

Some other Antarctic discoveries have been more ominous: an ancient, giant penguin species native to Antarctica was recently discovered, along with the fact that microbes can survive on the frozen continent by consuming nothing but oxygen, which led scientists the theorize that alien life might be able to do the same. Now the discovery that there are some hidden continents beneath Antarctica only further reinforces the sneaking suspicion that H.P. Lovecraft knew exactly what he was talking about.

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