A meteorite from Mars has been studied up-close and scientists have detected tiny structures that could be interpreted as having a biological origin.
This moment of déjà vu is brought to you by a new paper published in the February issue of Astrobiology where a team of scientists from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., describe the results of work on a 14 kilogram (30 pound) meteorite called Yamato 000593 (Y000593). The meteorite sample contains strong evidence that Mars used to be a lot wetter than it is now, but the researchers also report on the discovery of evidence for "biological processes" that occurred on the Red Planet hundreds of millions of years ago.
Although this sounds exciting, there will likely be some skepticism, but the researchers appear to have foreseen the media circus that "Mars life" always inspires and refused to appear overly excited of some pretty fascinating evidence for ancient microbial life.
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In 1996, President Clinton made a high profile announcement on national television that evidence for life had been discovered by NASA scientists inside another Martian meteorite called Allan Hills 84001 (ALH84001). The discovery focused around scanning electron microscope images of the microscopic detail of ALH84001. The team, led by David McKay of Johnson Space Center, identified "biogenic structures" inside the meteorite that was theorized to be formed by indigenous life on Mars.
The controversial media storm surrounding that 1996 announcement stirred a backlash that threw McKay's team's findings into doubt. However, McKay's team defended the work after ruling out terrestrial contamination and other factors that may have created the nanometer-sized worm-like structures. McKay also worked on the Y000593 study until his death in February 2013.
Not Your Average Space Rock This new work focuses around a meteorite that was discovered in the Yamato Glacier, Antarctica, by a Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition in 2000.
Analysis of the meteorite shows that it formed on the surface of Mars 1.3 billion years ago from a lava flow. Then, around 12 million years ago, a powerful impact event shattered the region, blasting quantities of Martian crust, containing any hypothetical lifeforms (and evidence thereof), into space. These chunks of Mars rock then traveled through interplanetary space until one of the samples, Y000593, encountered Earth and fell to the surface as a meteorite, falling on Antarctica some 50,000 years ago.
There are many known samples of Mars crust that have fallen to Earth as meteorites and are considered incredibly valuable scientific specimens that can be used as time capsules into Mars' geologic past. These meteorites are nature's ‘sample return missions,' no spaceship required.
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"While robotic missions to Mars continue to shed light on the planet's history, the only samples from Mars available for study on Earth are Martian meteorites," said lead author Lauren White, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a news release. "On Earth, we can utilize multiple analytical techniques to take a more in-depth look into meteorites and shed light on the history of Mars. These samples offer clues to the past habitability of this planet. As more Martian meteorites are discovered, continued research focusing on these samples collectively will offer deeper insight into attributes which are indigenous to ancient Mars. Furthermore, as these meteorite studies are compared to present day robotic observations on Mars, the mysteries of the planet's seemingly wetter past will be revealed."