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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Explained: Does a meteorite found in 1984 suggest the existence of life on Mars

A new study published in the journal Science offers an explanation for the existence of these organic compounds, which also counter the idea that the compounds were left by some form of life that existed on the Red planet billions of years ago.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 14, 2022 10:48:32 pm
Meteoroids are objects in space that range in size from dust grains to small asteroids. (Source: Pixabay.com/Representational)

For about four decades scientists have debated if the organic compounds found on the surface of the meteorite called (ALH) 84001–which landed on Earth from Mars in 1984 – were proof of ancient, primitive life on Mars. These debates also included the possibilities that the compounds could have come from volcanic activity, impact events on Mars or hydrological exposure.

Now, a new study published in the journal Science offers an explanation for the existence of these organic compounds, which also counter the idea that the compounds were left by some form of life that existed on the Red planet billions of years ago.

But how do scientists ascertain that the meteorite came from Mars in the first place? The Lunar and Planetary Institute notes that even though no human has ever stepped on Mars and no rocks have as yet been analysed (Last year, NASA’s Perseverance rover collected the first sample of Martian rock), it can be said with certainty that the meteorite did come from the Red planet because of the presence of traces of certain gases that are just like the Martian atmosphere.

Meteorite basics

The difference between a meteor, meteorite and meteoroid is nothing but where the object is. Meteoroids are objects in space that range in size from dust grains to small asteroids. “Think of them as “space rocks,” NASA says. But when meteoroids enter the Earth’s atmosphere they are called meteors. But if a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere and hits the ground, it is called a meteorite.

Scientists are interested in studying meteorites as examining them offers clues about the beginning of the solar system and maybe even the Earth. Space agencies have launched specific missions to asteroids to be able to study them. One such example is NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission launched in 2018 with the aim of reaching asteroid Bennu and getting back a sample from the ancient asteroid.

What does the study say about organic compounds?

The study posits that the organic compounds found in the meteorite were a result of the interactions between water and rocks that occurred on Mars. These interactions, the scientists observed, were similar to those that happen on Earth.

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“These kinds of non-biological, geological reactions are responsible for a pool of organic carbon compounds from which life could have evolved and represent a background signal that must be taken into consideration when searching for evidence of past life on Mars,” Andrew Steele, who led the study was quoted as saying in a press release.

Steele added, “The search for life on Mars is not just an attempt to answer the question ‘are we alone?’ It also relates to early Earth environments and addresses the question of ‘where did we come from?’”

Under what circumstances was (ALH) 84001 found?

Alan Hills (ALH) 84001 was found during a snowmobile ride on December 27, 1984 in the Far Western Icefield of Allan Hills in Antarctica by a US meteorite hunting expedition. At the time of its discovery it was recognised as the most unusual rock collected, NASA notes.

The Lunar Planetary Institute describes the meteorite at the time of i’s discovery as, “…shaped like a rounded brick or a large potato, about 6 inches long by 4 inches by 3 inches, and was partly covered with black glass (like it was dipped in tar). The glass, called fusion crust, forms on all meteorites when they burn through the Earth’s atmosphere. ALH 84001 looked green inside, which really excited the expedition.”

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