Of all the solar system places other than Earth, life as we know it likely developed at one point on Mars. Whether this is the case, future missions–like the Perseverance Rover–will hopefully help reveal. However, we can also study Mars without going there, thanks to space rocks that were catapulted from Mars/ surface in the distant past and crashed on Earth.
This is precisely how scientists have recently concluded that Mars had lots of surface water 4.4 billion years ago.
According to recent reports, a meteorite that is believed to have originated on Mars billions of years ago serves as a time capsule of details of ancient impact events on the red planet. Certain minerals in the Martian crust in the meteorite are oxidized, suggesting the presence of water during the impact that created the meteorite.
The finding, published in Science Advances, helps fill some gaps in knowledge about the role of water in planet formation.
There is an old question in planetary science about the origin of water on Earth, Mars, and other large bodies like the Moon.
One hypothesis is that it came from post-forming asteroids and comets.
But some planetary researchers think that water could be just one of many substances that occur naturally during the formation of planets, and a new analysis of an ancient Martian meteorite adds support for this second hypothesis.
The Martian meteorite
It all started a few years ago when a pair of dark meteorites were discovered in the Sahara desert.
They were nicknamed NWA 7034 and NWA 7533–NWA stands for Northwest Africa and the number is the order in which meteorites are officially approved by the Meteorite Society, an international planetary science organization.
After the space rocks were recovered, they were submitted to analysis, which went on to show that these meteorites are new types of Martian meteorites and are mixtures of different rock fragments.
The first fragments formed on Mars 4.4 billion years ago, making them the oldest known Martian meteorites. Rocks like this are rare and can fetch up to $10,000 per gram. Not long ago, 50 grams of NWA 7533 was purchased for analysis by the international team in which Professor Takashi Mikouchi from the University of Tokyo participated, the University of Tokyo revealed in a statement.
“I study minerals in Martian meteorites to understand how Mars formed and its crust and mantle evolved. This is the first time I have investigated this particular meteorite, nicknamed Black Beauty for its dark color,” explained professor Mikouchi.
“Our samples of NWA 7533 were subjected to four different kinds of spectroscopic analysis, ways of detecting chemical fingerprints. The results led our team to draw some exciting conclusions.”
Discovering how long water existed on Mars is of the essence if we are to better understand the chances of life forming there. Planetary scientists are well aware that there has been water on Mars for at least 3.7 billion years. But from the mineral composition of the meteorite that was analyzed, Mikouchi and his team deduced that water was likely present much earlier on the red planet, about 4.4 billion years ago.
If there was water on Mars earlier than previously thought, that suggests that the water is possibly a natural byproduct of some process early in the planet’s formation.
This finding could help researchers answer the question of where the water comes from, which in turn could affect theories about the origins of life and the exploration of life beyond Earth. If water does indeed “appear” on planets during the process of formation, it would make the possibility of life existing elsewhere in the universe a great one.
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Sources and reference: University of Tokyo / Science Advances / DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abc4941