NASA: 4-Billion-Year-Old Antarctica Meteorite Points Directly to Biology and Life on Mars

Collection-bEmboldened by the recent discovery of an ancient ocean and warm-water lakes on early Mars as well as the discovery of biologically-produced methane in the atmosphere of the Red Planet, NASA's Mars Meteorite Research Team reopened a 14-year-old controversy on extraterrestrial life, reaffirming and offering support for its widely challenged assertion that a 4-billion-year-old potato-sized meteorite that landed thousands of years ago on the Allen Hills region of Antarctica shows evidence of microscopic life on Mars.

The controversy is painfully reminiscent of the heated arguments about the outflow channels of ancient riverbeds on Mars, which many scientists were resistant to admit were carved by liquid water until spacecraft recently verified that large quantities of water ice exists in the shallow subsurface of Mars swayed opinion in favor of liquid water. 

In addition to presenting research that they said disproved some of their critics, the scientists reported that additional Martian meteorites appear to house distinct and identifiable microbial fossils that point even more strongly to the existence of life.

"We feel more confident than ever that Mars probably once was, and maybe still is, home to life," team leader David McKay said at a NASA-sponsored conference on astrobiology.

The researchers' presentations were not met with any of the excited frenzy that greeted the original 1996 announcement about the meteorite – which led to a televised statement by President Bill Clinton in which he announced a "space summit," the formation of a commission to examine its implications and the birth of a NASA-funded astrobiology program.

sing more advanced analytical instruments now available, a Johnson Space Center research team has reexamined the 1996 finding that a meteorite contains strong evidence that life may have existed on ancient Mars. 

The new research focused on investigating alternate proposals for the creation of materials thought to be signs of ancient life found in the meteorite. The new study argues that ancient life remains the most plausible explanation for the materials and structures found in the meteorite. 

In 1996, a group of scientists led by David McKay, Everett Gibson and Kathie Thomas-Keprta of NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston published an article in Science announcing the discovery of biogenic evidence in the ALH84001 meteorite. A newly published paper revisits that original hypothesis with new analyses. 

Magnetite crystals in ALH84001 have been a focus of debate about the possibility of life on Mars. Magnetite is an iron-bearing, magnetic mineral. On Earth, some water and soil bacteria secrete the mineral within their cells. The 1996 study suggested that some magnetite crystals associated with carbonate globules in ALH84001 are biogenic because they share many characteristics with those found in bacteria on Earth. 

Other scientists have argued instead that the magnetite in ALH84001 was likely caused by inorganic chemical processes, and that those same processes can be recreated artificially in the laboratory by heating carbonates in a process known as thermal decomposition, forming magnetite identical to that found in the Mars meteorite. 

In this new study, the JSC research team reassessed the leading alternative non-biologic hypothesis that heating or shock decomposition produced the magnetites. The authors argue that their new results do not support the heating hypothesis for the formation of the magnetites. They conclude that the biogenic explanation is a more viable hypothesis for the origin of the magnetites.  

“In this study, we interpret our results to suggest that the in situ inorganic hypotheses are inconsistent with the data, and thus infer that the biogenic hypothesis is still a viable explanation,” said lead author Thomas-Keprta, senior scientist for Barrios Technology at JSC. 

“We believe that the biogenic hypothesis is stronger now than when we first proposed it 13 years ago,” said Gibson, NASA senior scientist. 

In addition to the new paper on ALH84001, the JSC team has published a paper that identifies shapes or morphologies in Martian meteorites that resemble known microfossil and microbial shapes in samples from Earth. These new shapes, seen with a scanning electron microscope, are termed biomorphs because of their close resemblance to known, biologically produced features on Earth. The biomorphs observed in the meteorites will be the focus of the JSC team with more detailed studies, including chemical and isotopic analyses. 

“The evidence supporting the possibility of past life on Mars has been slowly building up during the past decade,” said McKay, NASA chief scientist for exploration and astrobiology, JSC. “This evidence includes signs of past surface water including remains of rivers, lakes and possibly oceans, signs of current water near or at the surface, water-derived deposits of clay minerals and carbonates in old terrain, and the recent release of methane into the Martian atmosphere, a finding that may have several explanations, including the presence of microbial life, the main source of methane on Earth." 

To view the two papers, imagery and associated materials on the Internet, visit: 

http://www.nasa.gov/centers/johnson/home/mars_meteorite.html  

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