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Study nixes Mars life in meteorite found in Antarctica

Research nixes Mars Life in Meteorite Found in Antarctica


Scientists reported that a meteorite four billion years old from Mars has no trace of primitive Martian life.

NASA’s 1996-led team declared that organic compounds found in the rock had been created by living things. Other scientists were skeptical and researchers chipped away at that premise over the decades, most recently by a team led by the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Andrew Steele.

Tiny samples from the meteorite show the carbon-rich compounds are actually the result of water — most likely salty, or briny, water — flowing over the rock for a prolonged period, Steele said. These findings are published in Science.


At least two impactors struck the rock during Mars’ early and wet periods. This heated the surrounding area and then a third bounced the rock off Mars and into space many millions of years earlier. It was discovered in Antarctica by a 4-pounder in 1984.

According to researchers, groundwater that had moved through cracks in rock while Mars was still alive, created the small globs carbon. Researchers said the same could happen on Earth. This would explain Mars’ presence of methane.

However, two of the scientists involved in the original research disagreed with this latest finding and called it “disappointing”. They shared an email in which they stated that they still stand behind their 1996 findings.

Kathie Thomas Keprta, Simon Clemett and Simon Clemett were astromaterial scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston. “While incrementally adding to our knowledge about (the meteorite), it is not novel nor supported by the research,” they wrote.

The meteorite labeled ALH84001 sits in a chamber at a Johnson Space Center lab in Houston, Aug. 7, 1996. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)


The meteorite’s “unsupported speculation” does not resolve the question of the origins and evolution of organic matter, the scientists concluded.

Steele claims that technological advances made Steele’s team possible to discover new things.

He appreciated the initial measurements and pointed out that it was “a reasonable interpretation” of their life-claiming hypothesis at the time. He said he and his team — which includes NASA, German and British scientists — took care to present their results “for what they are, which is a very exciting discovery about Mars and not a study to disprove” the original premise.

This finding “is huge for our understanding of how life started on this planet and helps refine the techniques we need to find life elsewhere on Mars, or Enceladus and Europa,” Steele said in an email, referring to Saturn and Jupiter’s moons with subsurface oceans.


Steele believes that samples from Mars can only be used to confirm if there was or remains microbial activity. NASA’s Perseverance Mars probe has already taken six samples that will be returned to Earth over the next ten years. Three dozen more samples would be appreciated.

After millions of years of drifting through space, this meteorite crashed onto an Antarctica icefield thousands of year ago. The small gray-green fragment got its name — Allan Hills 84001 — from the hills where it was found.

This week, an entire piece of meteorite was taken to the International Space Station for a unique experiment. Thomas-Keprta, who is based in Houston, operated the mini scanning electron microscope that examined the specimen. Researchers hope to use the microscope to analyze geologic samples in space — on the moon one day, for example — and debris that could ruin station equipment or endanger astronauts.


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