Moroccan Meteorite May Be a 4.4-Billion-Year-Old Chunk of Dark Martian Crust

Mars! Martian meteorites make their way to Earth after being ejected from Mars by a meteor impact on the Red Planet. Image: NASA/National Space Science Data Center.

Mars is often referred to as the Red Planet. But its signature color is only skin-deep – or, I should say, dust-deep. Beneath its rusty regolith Mars has many other hues and shades as well, from pale greys like those found inside holes drilled by Curiosity to large dark regions that are the result of ancient lava flows. Now, researchers think we may have an actual piece of one of Mars’ dark plains here on Earth in the form of a meteorite that was found in the Moroccan desert in 2011.

Mars meteorite NWA 7034 (NASA)
Mars meteorite NWA 7034 (NASA)

Classified as NWA 7034 (for Northwest Africa) the meteorite is a 320-gram (11 oz.) piece of Martian basaltic breccia made up of small fragments cemented together in a dark matrix. Nicknamed “Black Beauty,” NWA 7034 is one of the oldest meteorites ever discovered and is like nothing else ever found on Earth.

According to a new study on a fragment of the meteorite by researchers from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and the University of New Mexico, Black Beauty is a 4.4-billion-year-old chunk of Mars’ dark crust – the only known piece of such to have landed on Earth.

While other meteorites originating from Mars have been identified, they are of entirely different types than Black Beauty.

The researchers used a hyperspectral imaging technique to obtain data from across the whole fragment. In doing this, the measurements matched what’s been detected from Mars orbit by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

“Other techniques give us measurements of a dime-sized spot,” said Kevin Cannon, a Brown University graduate student and lead author of a new paper published in the journal Icarus. “What we wanted to do was get an average for the entire sample. That overall measurement was what ended up matching the orbital data.”

In addition to indicating a truly ancient piece of another planet, these findings hint at what the surface of many parts of Mars might be like just below the rusty soil… a surface that’s been shattered and reassembled many times by meteorite impacts.

“This is showing that if you went to Mars and picked up a chunk of crust, you’d expect it to be heavily beat up, battered, broken apart and put back together,” Cannon said.

HiRISE image of dark terrain near Ganges Chasma (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)
HiRISE image of dark terrain near Ganges Chasma (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Source/read more at Brown University news.

A New Look at Apollo Samples Supports Ancient Impact Theory

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New investigations of lunar samples collected during the Apollo missions have revealed origins from beyond the Earth-Moon system, supporting a hypothesis of ancient cataclysmic bombardment for both worlds.

Samples of Apollo 16 breccia that contain chondritic material (JSC)

Using scanning electron microscopes, researchers at the Lunar-Planetary Institute and Johnson Space Center have re-examined breccia regolith samples returned from the Moon, chemically mapping the lunar rocks to discern more compositional detail than ever before.

What they discovered was that many of the rocks contain bits of material that is chondritic in origin — that is, it came from asteroids, and not from elsewhere on the Moon or Earth.

Chondrites are meteorites that originate from the oldest asteroids, formed during the development of the Solar System. They are composed of the initial material that made up the stellar disk, compressed into spherical chondrules. Chondrites are some of the rarest types of meteorites found on Earth today but it’s thought that at one time they rained down onto our planet… as well as our moon.

The Lunar Cataclysm Hypothesis suggests that there was a period of extremely active bombardment of the Moon’s surface by meteorite impacts around 3.9 billion years ago. Because very few large impact events — based on melt rock samples — seem to have taken place more than 3.85 billion years ago, scientists suspect such an event heated the Moon’s surface enough prior to that period to eradicate any older impact features — a literal resurfacing of the young Moon.

There’s also evidence that there was a common source for the impactors, based on composition of the chondrites. What event took place in the Solar System that sent so much material hurtling our way? Was there a massive collision between asteroids? Did a slew of comets come streaking into the inner solar system? Were we paid a brief, gravitationally-disruptive visit by some other rogue interstellar object? Whatever it was that occurred, it changed the face of our Moon forever.

Curiously enough, it was at just about that time that we find the first fossil evidence of life on Earth. If there’s indeed a correlation, then whatever happened to wipe out the Moon’s oldest craters may also have cleared the slate for life here — either by removing any initial biological development that may have occurred or by delivering organic materials necessary for life in large amounts… or perhaps a combination of both.

Timeline for the Lunar Cataclysm Hypothesis (LPI)

The new findings from the Apollo samples provide unambiguous evidence that a large-scale impact event was taking place during this period  on the Moon — and most likely on Earth too. Since the Moon lacks atmospheric weathering or water erosion processes it serves as a sort of “time capsule”, recording the evidence of cosmic events that take place around the Earth-Moon neighborhood. While evidence for any such impacts would have long been erased from Earth’s surface, on the Moon it’s just a matter of locating it.

In fact, due to the difference in surface area, Earth may have received up to ten times more impacts than the Moon during such a cosmic cataclysm. With over 1,700 craters over 20 km identified on the Moon dating to a period around 3.9 billion years ago, Earth should have  17,000 craters over 20 km… with some ranging over 1,000 km! Of course, that’s if the craters could had survived 3.9 billion years of erosion and tectonic activity, which they didn’t. Still, it would have been a major event for our planet and anything that may have managed to start eking out an existence on it. We might never know if life had gained a foothold on Earth prior to such a cataclysmic bombardment, but thanks to the Moon (and the Apollo missions!) we do have some evidence of the events that took place.

Sample of lunar impact melt breccia, showing exterior and chondrule-filled interior. (Click for sample report.) Source: JSC

The LPI-JSC team’s paper was submitted to the journal Science and accepted for publication on May 2. See the abstract here, and read more on the Lunar Science Institute’s website here.

And if you want to browse through the Apollo lunar samples you can do so in depth on the JSC Lunar Sample Compendum site.