A Martian meteorite that was discovered in Northwest Africa, during 2011, is currently the subject of intense scrutiny, as scientists devote their time to understanding the mysteries of the material within. After collecting a series of mineral samples, dubbed Black Beauty, researchers have come to the conclusion that the Red Planet’s crust was first formed some 4.4 billion years ago.
Where Was Black Beauty Found?
Northwest Africa is home to a large population of nomads, who scour the Sahara Desert in search of fossilized remains and beautiful rocks. One of these recently discovered rocks happened to be Black Beauty, which was picked up by Bedouin tribesman and subsequently sold to a private collector in Indiana.
However, the nature of the rock was not fully understood, until Carl Agee – a professor from the University of New Mexico – was given the stunning chunk of meteorite. The specimen sat on his bookshelf for around two months, gathering dust, until he finally decided to cut into it.
Speaking to CNN, Agee describes his immediate impressions upon investigating the interior of the aesthetically distinct meteorite:
“It was shiny black on the outside, and when I cut into it, it was still very black, but it had also white specks and sparkling specks, and it looked really different than anything I’d ever seen.”
Mars’ Crust Formed Within 100 Million Years of Existence
In a brand new study, to be published in the journal Nature, researchers from Florida State University’s (FSU) Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (MagLab) investigated a piece of Black Beauty in further detail.
Based upon preliminary assessments, the group posits the meteorite to represent the very first
identified sample of crust from ancient Mars, whilst Black Beauty’s age indicates the Martian crust to have formed within the first 100 million years of the planet sparking to life.
In addition, the rock possesses 10 to 30 times the amount of water seen from previous meteorites from the Red Planet, perhaps indicating it derived from water-rich origins. Black Beauty – officially called NWA 7533 – boasts zircon crystals that are reported to be 4.4 billion years of age. With many suggesting Black Beauty to be one of the top contenders for the oldest Martian meteorite yet discovered, lead author of the study Munir Humayun reflected on the afore-mentioned findings, during a recent press release:
“This date is about 100 million years after the first dust condensed in the solar system… We now know that Mars had a crust within the first 100 million years of the start of planet-building, and that Mars’ crust formed concurrently with the oldest crusts on Earth and the moon.”
The research team used a series of advanced mass spectrometers, based in MegaLab’s geochemistry department to perform complex analyses on a collection of samples, weighing in at approximately 1.5 kilograms. High concentrations of trace metals were discovered, including iridium, nickel and osmium.
Iridium is an element found in much higher concentrations in meteorites than those concentrations found within the Earth’s crust and, therefore, suggests that the rock originally formed in a region of Mars that was bombarded by chondritic meteorites. Indeed, following completion of geochemical analyses, the team theorize the meteorite to stem from the cratered region of the planet’s southern highlands; this makes Black Beauty the first known specimen from this region to have reached Earth.
The Hunt for Martian Life
It is thought that Black Beauty could also provide evidence of the Red Planet’s history. Back when the meteorite’s zircon crystals first formed, 4.4 billion years ago, there would have been a great deal of volcanic activity across much of Mars; it is conjectured that volcanic activity aided in the rapid formation of a thick atmosphere from the vented carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapor.
It has even been suggested that the planet was covered in water around this period. Speaking to CNN, Humayun claims – when looking at the “livable” conditions that are suspected to have existed during Mars’ infancy – this is the most likely point at which life could have existed.
“If there was a biosphere on Mars ever, this is the time it would have originated.”
After Mars was bombarded by asteroids and comets, the atmosphere and oceans disappeared and the planet now remains a relatively cold, baron environment. However, it is certainly conceivable that Black Beauty might provide insight as to whether or not Mars previously harbored organic life. Humayun and colleagues are set to look inside the rock for chemical traces that indicate the past presence of microorganisms.
Ultimately, the team believe the tribal discovery is merely the tip of the iceberg and the Black Beauty meteorite could reveal even more of the Red Planet’s remarkable secrets. Further planned studies aim to explore the Martian zircons and the impact history of Mars.
By James Fenner