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.