The Smithsonian collects a lot of things — from Fonzie's jacket to ancient Chinese pottery. It turns out it also collects and studies meteorites in a sanitized facility outside of Washington, DC. The team there preserves an ultra-clean environment to prevent contamination while analyzing space rocks harvested from Antarctica.
The Antarctic Meteorite Program's lab staff don protective gear and work with the rocks in vacuumed-sealed containers accessed by gloves from the outside. The meteorites are even held in dry nitrogen storage to prevent any moisture from compromising the samples.
In fact, the Smithsonian's clean room is modeled after the Lunar Processing Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
That's pretty clean. So, why all the neat-freak fuss?
There's a wealth of information in the pristine samples coming from Antarctica. Understanding how other objects in space formed helps scientists conjecture about how our own planet may evolve, and what we might find as we look to explore beyond our moon. So, just like lunar samples, meteorites need to remain as untouched and carefully preserved as possible so they can yield the most accurate details about our solar system.
Fortunately, there is a wealth of samples as the Antarctic is richest source for the recovery of meteors here on Earth. For the past 30 years the meteors collected during U.S. expeditions there have outnumbered the amount collected from across the entire planet over 500 years.
The Smithsonian's lab provides the first characterizations of the samples and houses, catalogs and disburses them for study. Their role is part of a shared project between the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution and NASA.