It’s likely one of the most important discoveries in recent years and astronomers are just beginning to understand the potential findings from a rare Martian meteorite recovered in Western Morocco.
Astronomers say the Mars meteorite — dubbed “Black Beauty” — is unlike any of the Martian meteorites yet discovered on Earth, according to a report published online Thursday by the journal Science. The meteorite contains the highest concentration of water ever recorded and it is generating a large amount of excitement within the astronomy community.
The stunning discovery has raised more questions than it has answered, including questions about whether the presence of water in a 2.5-billion-year meteorite raises the prospect of discovering past life on the Red Planet. While it is likely to take years before we have any definitive answers, here are three questions it just may answer:
Did Mars once have flowing water? If so, when?
It is pretty evident that Mars once had water flowing across its surface. Recent data from NASA’s Curiosity rover suggests that rivers of water once flowed across the Red Planet and its poles continue to hold vast amounts of frozen water. The recently discovered meteorite will likely provide astronomers with a window as to how long ago water flowed on the surface of Mars. At 2.1 billion years old, it is the second-oldest known Martian meteorite that formed from a volcanic eruption. Though the amount released during testing at high temperatures was barely enough to register here on Earth – 6,000 parts per million – it is still much more than other Martian meteorites. The age, combined with the presence of water, likely provides astronomers with the best data to date for when water began to form on the surface of Mars.
How did Mars come to be, geologically speaking?
Astronomers have collected samples that reveal the presence of a number of different types of rock, including basalt that forms from rapidly cooled lava. The fragments are primarily feldspar and pyroxene, most likely from volcanic activity, according to NASA. U.S. scientists studying the cosmic rock say it meteorite formed 2.1 billion years ago during the beginning of the most recent geologic period on Mars, known as the Amazonian, and it is likely to provide geologists with a more complete picture of Mars’ evolution over the past several billion years.
“The contents of this meteorite may challenge many long held notions about Martian geology,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
Researchers theorize the large amount of water contained in the space rock may have originated from interaction of the rocks with water present in Mars’ crust. The meteorite also has a different mixture of oxygen isotopes than has been found in other Martian meteorites, which could have resulted from interaction with the Martian atmosphere, according to NASA.
“This Martian meteorite has everything in its composition that you’d want in order to further our understanding of the Red Planet,” said Carl Agee, leader of the analysis team and director and curator at the University of New Mexico’s Institute of Meteoritics in Albuquerque. “This unique meteorite tells us what volcanism was like on Mars 2 billion years ago. It also gives us a glimpse of ancient surface and environmental conditions on Mars that no other meteorite has ever offered.”
Could life travel from Mars to Earth and survive?
This meteorite may provide astronomers with a better understanding of the conditions life would have to endure during a journey from Mars to Earth. The presence of water likely increases the odds of extraterrestrial life hitching a ride to Earth, however, it remains unclear if the presence of water is necessary for life to survive the trip.
Among the most intriguing components of the meteorite is the fact that it is blackened throughout the entire rock. Though most space rocks become blackened on the outside during their descent through the Earth’s atmosphere, they often remain light on the inside.