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Ancient meteorite offers evidence that life could have existed on Mars, says researcher

Carl Agee, director and curator at the University of New Mexico’s Institute of Meteoritics, and his team of researchers have identified a new class of Martian meteorite that fell to our planet and probably came from the Red Planet’s crust and surface environment.

According to a statement from the University of New Mexico, this finding could be a “once in a lifetime discovery.”

The ancient meteorite, nicknamed “Black Beauty,” is officially known by the name Northwest Africa (NWA) 7034. The meteorite weighs approximately 320 grams and was discovered in the Saharan Desert in 2011. After examining the object for more than a year, Professor Agee and his team believe that the meteorite formed 2.1 billion years ago. They also learned that the meteorite contains an order of magnitude more water (10x’s) than any other Martian meteorite.

Professor Agee told The New York Times that the copiousness of water “suggests that it’s within the realm of possibility that life could have existed 2.1 billion years ago.”

The study’s findings were recently published in the journal Science Express.

“This mete­orite is unlike any­thing I’ve ever seen before,” said Professor Agee in a statement. “It’s a com­pletely new type of Mar­t­ian mete­orite. It has every­thing in its com­po­si­tion that you’d want in order to fur­ther our under­stand­ing of the Red Planet. This unique Mar­t­ian mete­orite tells us what vol­can­ism was like 2 bil­lion years ago, but it also gives us a glimpse of ancient sur­face and envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions on Mars that no other mete­orite has offered.”

Researchers at the Carnegie Institution examined carbon in the meteorite and found that organic carbon like that seen in other Martian meteorites is also located in this meteorite.

“This mete­orite, made of brec­ciated vol­canic rock, is con­sis­tent with the com­po­si­tion of sur­face rocks on Mars ana­lyzed by Mar­t­ian rovers and orbiters,” added Professor Agee. “But, our analy­sis of the oxy­gen iso­topes, oxy­gen atoms with dif­fer­ent num­bers of neu­trons, shows that NWA 7034 is not like any other mete­orites or plan­e­tary sam­ples. The chem­istry is con­sis­tent with sur­face rocks that have inter­acted with the Mar­t­ian atmos­phere, an idea that had been hypoth­e­sized by ear­lier stud­ies. The abun­dance of water, some 6,000 parts per mil­lion, sug­gests that the mete­orite inter­acted with Mar­t­ian sur­face– or ground-water 2.1 bil­lion years ago.”

While “Black Beauty” shares some similarities with other Martian meteorites, it is also different from Red Planet meteorites known as SNC. With 110 SNC meteorites in existence, they are the only meteoritic samples from Mars that researchers have been able to examine in Earth-based laboratories. Scientists are still trying to determine their point of origin on the Red Planet, as recent data from lander and orbiter missions suggest that SNC meteorites did not come from the Martian crust.

“The tex­ture of the NWA mete­orite is not like any of the SNC mete­orites,” said researcher Andrew Steele, who led the car­bon analy­sis at the Carnegie Institution’s Geo­phys­i­cal Lab­o­ra­tory, in a statement. “It is made of cemented frag­ments of basalt, rock that forms from rapidly cooled lava, dom­i­nated with feldspar and pyrox­ene, most likely from vol­canic activ­ity. This com­po­si­tion is com­mon for lunar sam­ples, but not from other Mar­t­ian meteorites.”

Researchers believe that Martian meteorite will provide additional clues about the planet’s warm, wet past and its present cold, dry state.

“Per­haps most excit­ing, is that the high water con­tent could mean there was an inter­ac­tion of the rocks with sur­face water either from vol­canic magma, or from flu­ids from impact­ing comets dur­ing that time,” said Mr. Steele. “It is the rich­est Mar­t­ian mete­orite geo­chem­i­cally and fur­ther analy­ses are bound to unleash more surprises.”

“For me per­son­ally, this is a once in a career dis­cov­ery. You try to do high qual­ity sci­ence, you do good work, per­se­vere, but once in a while, you just get lucky.” added Professor Agee.

This discovery comes as the Mars rover Curiosity tries to determine whether areas inside Gale Crater ever offered a habitable environment for microbes. Curiosity will soon begin a nine-month trek up the three-mile high Mount Sharp at the center of Gale Crater. In the meantime, Curiosity is exploring “Yellowknife Bay,” a flatter and lighter-toned type of terrain compared to what the rover crossed during its first four months inside Gale Crater, according to NASA.

Will Curiosity find evidence that Mars once offered a habitable environment for microbes? Will this discovery be made in 2013? Is “Black Beauty” a hint of things to come on the Red Planet? Sound off in the comments section.