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Rare Mars meteorite may contain ancient air

A rare rock jettisoned from the surface of Mars may contain air and soil samples from the Red Planet, which astronomers estimate to be nearly 1 million years old.

A meteorite that landed in the Moroccan desert fourteen months ago may provide astronomers with more information about Mars, the planet where it originated. The rock, which now resides at the Natural History Museum, London, contains abundance of black glass that they say may contain traces of Mars’ surface, atmosphere and interior.

“Those bubbles are interesting because they trapped Martian conditions at the moment the meteorite formed, and it hasn’t had any exchange with other materials,” said Hasnaa Chennaoui Aoudjehane, who worked on the specimen.

The meteorite is one of a number of pieces of rock that plunged to the surface of Earth last July. The meteorites were located in the desert of Morocco, where they were named Tissint meteorites after the village they landed near. The first batch of meteorites were collected in the days following the impact, which increased their value to astronomers here on Earth. Many Martian rocks are recovered from Antarctica, and only after they have spent months or years on Earth, during which time degradation and contamination take hold. Pieces weighing between 100g and 2kg have been recovered, along with thousands of smaller fragments. The intact meteorite is estimated to have weighed 17kg.

The international team of astronomers say the meteorite is mostly comprised of a volcanic rock known as basalt. There are also signs of elements being carried into cracks in the rock by water or fluid — something never seen before in a Martian meteorite — which suggests that it came from the interior of Mars, however, levels of sulfur, fluorine and other trace elements suggest that the meteorite derives from the surface of the Red Planet.

It remains unclear what scientists will be able to extract from the meteorite. Astronomers say the black glass found covering the rock likely resulted from melting, possibly caused by the impact that jettisoned the piece off Mars an estimated 700,000 years ago. That said, it is highly unlikely that the rock will provide scientists with an answer to the most basic question: did life ever exist on Mars?

The finding comes as Curiosity, NASA’s current Mars Rover mission continues its mission on the Red Planet, searching for more information on the history of Mars. The team’s study makes a return mission to Mars that will bring rocks back to Earth all the more crucial. Martian rocks delivered to Earth by a space craft would provide the best opportunity to see if life was ever clinging to the surface of Mars, say scientists.

For now, at least one kilogram lump of the meteorite will remain on display in the museum’s The Vault gallery, where visitors will have a chance to view it. Speaking Thursday, Dr. Caroline Smith, meteorites curator at the Natural History Museum, said they are excited to host the sample.

“Any meteorite that is seen to fall – they’re called “fall meteorites” – are particularly interesting because they suffer from very little contamination,” she said. “One of the main things we found was that some of the chemical signatures in this meteorite indicate it must be from quite close to the surface of Mars, or even on the surface.”

The research appears in the latest issue of Science.