Some 17 years after the controversial announcement was made regarding the ALH84001 Martian meteorite, another meteorite is making news, albeit for far tamer reasons. Scientists have discovered a meteorite, one which they believe was once part of the crust of Mars, that contains 10 times the amount of water found in similar Martian meteorites to date.
Discovered in the Sahara Desert in 2011, the Northwest Africa (NWA) 7034 Meteorite has been dubbed “Black Beauty” and weighs about 11 ounces (320 grams).
The NASA-funded research took place for more than a year and discovered that Black Beauty was formed some 2.1 billion years ago. This period in the planet’s history is known as the Amazonian.
The fleet of rovers and orbiters that NASA has sent to the Red Planet has shown the space agency that the meteorite is a close match to the Martian terrain. However, Black Beauty is different than any other Martian meteorite that NASA has come across so far.
“The age of NWA 7034 is important because it is significantly older than most other Martian meteorites,” said Mitch Schulte, program scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We now have insight into a piece of Mars’ history at a critical time in its evolution.”
The findings were published in a recent edition of Science Express.
Black Beauty is made up primarily of basalt rock, feldspar, and pyroxene. The meteorite’s composition points to a volcanic history.
“The contents of this meteorite may challenge many long-held notions about Martian geology,” said John Grunsfeld, former shuttle astronaut and NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. “These findings also present an important reference frame for the Curiosity rover as it searches for reduced organics in the minerals exposed in the bedrock of Gale Crater.”
Scientists break Martian meteorites into three distinct categories (named aptly after three meteorites that were discovered). The names of these meteorites were Shergotty, Nakhla, and Chassigny, or “SNC.” About 110 of these meteorites have been discovered. The problem is that data being collected from the various rovers and orbiters at Mars have found that some of these are a mismatch to the terrain they are studying.
Moreover, Black Beauty bears some resemblance to other SNC meteorites, but it also has characteristics that are all its own. Given the amount of controversy raised by ALH84001, these qualities could be used to call into question Black Beauty’s point of origin. For scientists, however, the meteorite’s eccentricities merely highlight a Mars that was far different than the freeze-dried world that we see today.
“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. “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.”