Meteorite May Contain Proof of Life on Mars, Researchers Say

Mars is currently home to a small army robotic rovers, satellites and orbiters, all of which are busy at work trying to unravel the deeper mysteries of Earth’s neighbor. These include whether or not the planet ever had liquid water on its surface, what the atmosphere once looked like, and – most importantly of all – if it ever supported life.

And while much has been learned about Martian water and its atmosphere, the all-important question of life remains unanswered. Until such time as organic molecules – considered to be the holy grail for missions like Curiosity – are found, scientists must look elsewhere to find evidence of Martian life.

According to a recent paper submitted by an international team of scientists, that evidence may have arrived on Earth three and a half years ago aboard a meteorite that fell in the Moroccan desert. Believed to have broken away from Mars 700,000 years ago, so-called Tissint meteorite has internal features that researchers say appear to be organic materials.

The paper appeared in the scientific journal Meteoritics and Planetary Sciences. In it, the research team – which includes scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) – indicate organic carbon is located inside fissures in the rock. All indications are the meteorite is Martian in origin.

“So far, there is no other theory that we find more compelling,” says Philippe Gillet, director of EPFL’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Laboratory. He and his colleagues from China, Japan and Germany performed a detailed analysis of organic carbon traces from a Martian meteorite, and have concluded that they have a very probable biological origin.

Artist's conception of an fragment as it blasts off from Mars. Boulder-sized planetary fragments could be a mechanism that carried life between Mars and Earth, UA planetary scientist Jay Melosh says. (Credit: The Planetary Society)
Artist’s conception of an fragment as it blasts off from Mars as a result of a meteor impact. Credit: The Planetary Society

The scientists argue that carbon could have been deposited into the fissures of the rock when it was still on Mars by the infiltration of fluid that was rich in organic matter.

If this sounds familiar, you may recall a previous Martian meteorite named ALH84001, found in the Allen Hills region in Antarctica. In 1996 NASA researchers announced they had found evidence within ALH84001 that strongly suggested primitive life may have existed on Mars more than 3.6 billion years ago. While subsequent studies of the now famous Allen Hills Meteorite shot down theories that the Mars rock held fossilized alien life, both sides continue to debate the issue.

This new research on the Tissint meteorite will likely be reviewed and rebutted, as well.

The researchers say the meteorite was likely ejected from Mars after an asteroid crashed on its surface, and fell to Earth on July 18, 2011, and fell in Morocco in view of several eyewitnesses.

Upon examination, the alien rock was found to have small fissures that were filled with carbon-containing matter. Several research teams have already shown that this component is organic in nature, but they are still debating where the carbon came from.

Chemical, microscopic and isotope analysis of the carbon material led the researchers to several possible explanations of its origin. They established characteristics that unequivocally excluded a terrestrial origin, and showed that the carbon content were deposited in the Tissint’s fissures before it left Mars.

This research challenges research proposed in 2012 that asserted that the carbon traces originated through the high-temperature crystallization of magma. According to the new study, a more likely explanation is that liquids containing organic compounds of biological origin infiltrated Tissint’s “mother” rock at low temperatures, near the Martian surface.

A piece of the Tissint meteorite that came to Earth via Mars. Credit: EPFL/Alain Herzog
A piece of the Tissint meteorite that landed on Earth on July 18th, 2011. Credit: EPFL/Alain Herzog

These conclusions are supported by several intrinsic properties of the meteorite’s carbon, e.g. its ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12. This was found to be significantly lower than the ratio of carbon-13 in the CO2 of Mars’s atmosphere, previously measured by the Phoenix and Curiosity rovers.

Moreover, the difference between these ratios corresponds perfectly with what is observed on Earth between a piece of coal – which is biological in origin – and the carbon in the atmosphere.

The researchers note that this organic matter could also have been brought to Mars when very primitive meteorites – carbonated chondrites – fell on it. However, they consider this scenario unlikely because such meteorites contain very low concentrations of organic matter.

“Insisting on certainty is unwise, particularly on such a sensitive topic,” warns Gillet. “I’m completely open to the possibility that other studies might contradict our findings. However, our conclusions are such that they will rekindle the debate as to the possible existence of biological activity on Mars – at least in the past.”

Be sure to check out these videos from EPFL News, which include an interview with Philippe Gillet, EPFL and co-author of the study:

And this video explaining the history of the Tissint meteor:

Further Reading: EPFL

Weekly Space Hangout – Nov. 21, 2014: New Images of Europa

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @cosmic_chatter)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein)
Ramin Skibba (@raminskibba)
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)

Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – Nov. 21, 2014: New Images of Europa”

Stolen Meteorite Found at a Tennis Court

Here’s a bit of good news: the Serooskerken meteorite, which was stolen from the Sonnenborgh Museum and Observatory in Utrecht, Netherlands on Monday night, has been recovered. It was found in a bag left in some bushes alongside a tennis court and turned in to the police.

It’s not quite “game, set, match” though; unfortunately the meteorite was broken during the theft. (See a photo here via Twitter follower Marieke Baan.) Still, the Sonnenborgh Museum director is glad to have the pieces back, which he said will remain useful for research and can still be exhibited. (Source)

The Serooskerken meteorite was recovered from a fall in the Dutch province of Zeeland on August 28, 1925. Classified as a diogenite (HED) it is thought to have originated from the protoplanet Vesta, the second most massive object in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter (and the previous target of NASA’s Dawn mission.) It is one of only five meteorite specimens ever recovered in the Netherlands.

The meteorite was one of several items reported stolen from the Sonnenborgh Museum on the night of August 18-19, 2014.

Find out more about the recovery (in Dutch) and see photos here.

HT to Google+ Space Community member Andre van der Hoeven for the update on this story.

A Piece of Vesta Has Been Stolen!

Calling all meteorite collectors and enthusiasts! There’s a hot space rock at large and, as Indiana Jones would say, it belongs in a museum. Perhaps you can help put it back in one.

Mosaic synthesizes some of the best views the spacecraft had of the giant asteroid Vesta. Dawn studied Vesta. The towering mountain at the south pole - more than twice the height of Mount Everest - is visible at the bottom of the image. The set of three craters known as the "snowman" can be seen at the top left. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA
Mosaic of the asteroid Vesta made from images acquired by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCAL/MPS/DLR/IDA

On Aug. 19 a burglary was reported at the Sonnenborgh Museum and Observatory in Utrecht, Netherlands, and one of the items missing is a meteorite that is thought to have originated from the asteroid Vesta.

Seen above in a photo from the museum’s collection, the Meteorite of Serooskerken was recovered from a rare fall in 1925 in the province of Zeeland. Only five meteorites have ever been found in the Netherlands, making the Serooskerken specimen somewhat of a national treasure – not to mention a valuable piece of our Solar System’s history!

About 5–6% of all the meteorites found on Earth are thought to be from Vesta, the second-largest world in the main asteroid belt. (Source)

It doesn’t sound like the meteorite was the target of the burglary, but rather it just happened to be included with other things taken from the museum’s safe.

If you have any information on the burglary or see this meteorite offered up for sale anywhere, please report it to the Sonnenborgh Museum here.

If you are a Dutch-speaker, audio of the news can be found here. (Any translations would be welcome in the comments!)

HT to Google+ Space Community member Andre van der Hoeven.

One That Fell to Earth: Researchers Reveal 2012 Novato Meteorite Took a Beating

What’s the chance of that thump you just heard in your house was a meteorite hitting your roof? That was the case for one family in Novato, California during a fireball event that took place in the north bay area near San Francisco on October 17, 2012.

Researchers have now released new results from analysis of the meteor that fell to Earth, revealing that the “Novato meteorite” was part of numerous collisions over a span of 4 billion years.

There is nothing ordinary about a meteorite whether it just spent 4.4 billion years all alone or spent such time in a game of cosmic pinball, interacting with other small or large bodies of our Solar System. On any given night one can watch at least a couple of meteors overhead burning up, lighting up the sky but never reaching the Earth below. However, in less than two years, Dr. Peter Jenniskens, SETI Institute’s renowned meteor expert was effectively host to two meteorites within a couple hours drive from his office in Mountain View, California.

The first was the Sutter Mill meteorite, a fantastic carbonaceous chondrite full of organic compounds. The second was the Novato meteorite, identified as a L6 chondrite fragmental breccia. which is the focus of new analysis, to be released in a paper in the August issue of Meteoritics and Planetary Science. Early on, it was clear that this meteorite had been a part of a larger asteroidal parent body that had undergone impact shocks.

Analysis of the meteorite was spearheaded by Jenniskens who initially determined the trajectory and orbit of the meteoroid from the Cameras for Allsky Meteor Surveillance (CAMS) which he helped establish in the greater San Francisco bay area. Jenniskens immediately released information about the fireball to local news agencies to ask for the public’s help with the hopes of finding pieces of the meteorite. One resident recalled hearing something hit her roof, and with the help of neighbors, they investigated and soon found the first fragment in their backyard.

Finding fragments was the first step, and over a two year period, the analysis of the Novato meteorite was spread across several laboratories around the world with specific specialties.

Novato N04, found by Bob Verish. The fourth of 6 fragments of the Novato fireball recovered. (Image Credit, B. Verish)
Novato N04, found by Bob Verish. The fourth of six fragments of the Novato fireball recovered. Fusion crust from entry into the Earth’s atmosphere is clearly evident. A 1 centimeter cube is shown for size comparison. (Image Credit, B. Verish, cams.seti.org)

Dr. Jenniskens, along with 50 co-authors, have concluded that the Novato meteorite had been involved in more impacts than previously thought. Dr. Qingzhu Yin, professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Davis stated, “We determined that the meteorite likely got its black appearance from massive impact shocks causing a collisional resetting event 4.472 billion years ago, roughly 64-126 million years after the formation of the solar system.”

The predominant theory of the Moon’s formation involves an impact of the Earth by a Mars-sized body. The event resulted in the formation of the Moon but also the dispersal of many fragments throughout the inner Solar System. Dr. Qingzhu Yin continued, “We now suspect that the moon-forming impact may have scattered debris all over the inner solar system and hit the parent body of the Novato meteorite.”

Additionally, the researcher discovered that the parent body of the Novato meteorite experienced a massive impact event approximately 470 million years ago. This event dispersed many asteroidal fragments throughout the Asteroid Belt including a fragment from which resulted the Novato meteorite.

The Novato meteorite strewn field determined by Dr. Jenniskens team's analysis of CAMS allsky images. (Illustration Credit, P. Jenniskens, NASA/SETI)
The Novato meteorite strewn field determined by Dr. Jenniskens team’s analysis of CAMS allsky images. (Illustration Credit, P. Jenniskens, NASA, SETI – cams.seti.org)

The trajectory analysis completed earlier by Dr. Jenniskens pointed the Novato meteorite back to the Gefion asteroid family. Dr. Kees Welten, cosmochemist at UC Berkeley, was able to further pinpoint the time, drawing the conclusion, “Novato broke from one of the Gefion family asteroids nine million years ago.” His colleague at Berkeley, cosmochemist Dr. Kunihiko Nishiizumialso added, “but may have been buried in a larger object until about one million years ago.”

There was more that could be revealed about history of  the Novato meteorite. Dr. Derek Sears a meteoriticist working for the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute in Sonoma, California and stationed at NASA Ames Reserach Center applied his expertise in thermoluminescence. Dr. Sears was involved in the analysis of Lunar regolith returned by the Apollo astronauts using this analysis method.

“We can tell the rock was heated, but the cause of the heating is unclear,” said Dr. Sears, “It seems that Novato was hit again.” As stated in the NASA press release, “Scientists at Ames measured the meteorites’ thermoluminescence – the light re-emitted when heating of the material and releasing the stored energy of past electromagnetic and ionizing radiation exposure – to determine that Novato may have had another collision less than 100,000 years ago.”

From this apparent final collision one hundred thousand years ago, the Novato meteoroid completed over 10,000 orbits of the Sun and with its final Solar orbit, intercepted the Earth, entering our atmosphere and mostly burning up over California. The meteoroid is estimated to have measured 14 inches across (35 cm) and have weighed 176 pounds (80 kg). What reached the ground likely amounted to less than 5 lbs. (~ 2 kg). Only six fragments were recovered and many more remain buried or hidden in Sonoma and Napa counties.

Besides the analysis that revealed the series of likely impact events in the meteoroids history, a team led by Dr. Dan Glavin from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center undertook analysis in search of amino acids, the building blocks of life. They detected non-protein amino acids in the meteorite that are very rare on Earth. Dr. Jenniskens emphasized that the quick recovery of the fragments by scores of individuals that searched provided pristine samples for analysis.

The impact dent on the rooftop of the Webber home in Novato. Luis Rivera points to the dent. (Image Credit, P.Jenniskens, L.Rivera, cams.seti.org)
The impact dent on the rooftop of the Webber home in Novato. Luis Rivera points to the dent. (Image Credit, P.Jenniskens, L.Rivera, cams.seti.org)

Robert P. Moreno, Jr. in Santa Rosa, CA photographed the fireball in greatest detail with a high resolution camera. Several other photos were brought forward from other vantage points. Dr. Jenniskens stated, “These photographs show that this meteorite – now one of the best studied meteorites of its kind – broke in spurts, each time creating a flash of light as it entered Earth’s atmosphere.”

An animated gif of the series of photographs taken by Robert Moreno Jr. (Credit, R. Moreno Jr., NASA, SETI)
An animated gif of the series of photographs taken by Robert Moreno Jr. Click on the image to animate in full resolution. (Credit, R. Moreno Jr., NASA, SETI)

Numerous individuals and groups undertook the search for the Novato meteorite. Dr. Jenniskens trajectory analysis included a likely impact zone or strewn field. People from all walks of life roamed the streets, open fields and hillsides of the north bay in search of fragments. Despite organized searches by Dr. Jenniskens, it was the footwork from other individuals that led to finding six fragments and was the first step which led to these studies that add to the understanding  of the early Solar System’s development.

For Dr. Jenniskens, Novato was part of a trifecta – the April 22, 2012, Sutter Mill meteorite in the nearby foothills of the Sierras, the Novato meteorite and the massive Chelyabinsk airburst event in Russia on February 15, 2013. Throughout this period, Dr. Jenniskens all-sky camera network continued to expand and record “falling stars” – meteors. The number of meteors recorded with calculated trajectories is now over 175,000. The SETI Institute researcher has been supported by NASA and personnel at the institute and ordinary citizens including amateur astronomers that have refined the methods for meteor orbital determination and estimating their size and mass. Several websites have compiled images and results for the Novato meteorite with Dr. Jenniskens’ – CAMS.SETI.ORG being most prominent.

What Created This Huge Crater In Siberia?

What is it with Russia and explosive events of cosmic origins? The 1908 Tunguska Explosion, the Chelyabinsk bolide of February 2013, and now this: an enormous 80-meter 60-meter wide crater discovered in the Yamal peninsula in northern Siberia!

To be fair, this crater is not currently thought to be from a meteorite impact but rather an eruption from below, possibly the result of a rapid release of gas trapped in what was once frozen permafrost. The Yamal region is rich in oil and natural gas, and the crater is located 30 km away from its largest gas field. Still, a team of researchers are en route to investigate the mysterious hole further.

Watch a video captured by engineer Konstantin Nikolaev during a helicopter flyover below:

In the video the Yamal crater/hole has what appear to be streams of dry material falling into it. Its depth has not yet been determined. (Update: latest measurements estimate the depth of the hole to be 50-70 meters. Source.)

Bill Chappell writes on NPR’s “The Two-Way”:

“The list of possible natural explanations for the giant hole includes a meteorite strike and a gas explosion, or possibly an eruption of underground ice.”

Dark material around the inner edge of the hole seems to suggest high temperatures during its formation. But rather than the remains of a violent impact by a space rock — or the crash-landing of a UFO, as some have already speculated — this crater may be a particularly explosive result of global warming.

According to The Siberian Times:

“Anna Kurchatova from Sub-Arctic Scientific Research Centre thinks the crater was formed by a water, salt and gas mixture igniting an underground explosion, the result of global warming. She postulates that gas accumulated in ice mixed with sand beneath the surface, and that this was mixed with salt – some 10,000 years ago this area was a sea.”

The crater is thought to have formed sometime in 2012.

Read more at The Siberian Times and NPR.

UPDATE July 17: A new video (in Russian) of the hole from the research team has come out, and apparently it’s been made clear that it’s not the result of a meteorite. Exactly what process did produce it is still unknown, but rising temperatures are still thought to be a factor. Watch below (via Sploid).

(If any Russian-speaking UT readers would like to translate what’s being said, feel free to share in the comments below.)

Also check out the latest photos from the research expedition at The Siberian Times here.

UPDATE Nov. 13: Once the water in these holes froze solid scientists were able to enter and explore the bottoms. According to an article published on The Guardian, “eighty percent of the crater appears to be made up of ice and there are no traces of a meteorite strike.”

Researchers descend into an ice-covered Yamal Crater in Siberia. Credit: Vladimir Pushkarev/Russian Centre of Arctic Exploration (via Siberian Times) 
Researchers descend into an ice-covered Yamal Crater in Siberia. Credit: Vladimir Pushkarev/Russian Centre of Arctic Exploration (via Siberian Times)

“As of now we don’t see anything dangerous in the sudden appearance of such holes, but we’ve got to study them properly to make absolutely sure we understand the nature of their appearance and don’t need to be afraid about them.”

– Vladimir Pushkarev, Director, Russian Center of Arctic Exploration

See more photos from inside the crater from the Russian Center of Arctic Exploration on The Siberian Times here.

Rock On! Curiosity Spots a Heavy Metal Meteorite

Talk about heavy metal! This shiny, lumpy rock spotted by NASA’s Curiosity rover is likely made mostly of iron — and came from outer space! It’s an iron meteorite, similar to ones found in years past by Curiosity’s forerunners Spirit and Opportunity, but is considerably larger than any of the ones the MER rovers came across… in fact, at 2 meters (6.5 feet) wide this may very well be the biggest meteorite ever discovered on Mars!

Click the image for a supermetallicious high-resolution version from JPL’s Planetary Photojournal.

Original raw Mastcam (right) image of Lebanon and Lebanon B from Sol 640 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
Original raw Mastcam (right) image of Lebanon and Lebanon B from Sol 640 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The picture above was made by combining high-resolution circular images (outlined in white) acquired with the Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) of Curiosity’s ChemCam instrument with color and context from the rover’s Mastcam. The images were taken on mission Sol 640 (May 25, 2014) and have been adjusted to simulate more Earth-like illumination.

Dubbed “Lebanon,” the large meteorite has a smaller fragment lying alongside it, named “Lebanon B.”

While iron meteorites are fairly common on Earth, on Mars they are by far the most common types of meteorites that have been discovered — if just for the sheer fact that they are highly resistant to erosion.*

Find more news and images from the MSL mission on the JPL site here.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/IRAP/LPGNantes/CNRS/IAS/MSSS

Source: NASA

*Note: that isn’t to say iron meteorites can’t be eroded; on the contrary, much of their signature surface sheen and pitted texture comes from various erosion processes. See a related study from J. W. Ashley et al. here.

Eureka! Kola Fireball Meteorites Found in Russia

A spectacular fireball that crackled across the sky near the Russia-Finnish border on April 19th this year left more than a bright flash. A team of meteor researchers from Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic scoured the predicted impact zone and recently discovered extraterrestrial booty.

A 120 gram fragment of the Annama meteorite. Streamlines of molten material heated during atmospheric entry can be seen on the crust. Credit: Jakub Haloda
A 120 gram fragment (left) of the Annama meteorite found on May 29, 2014. Streamlines of molten material heated during atmospheric entry can be seen on the crust. At right, a 48g fragment found on the following day. Credit: Jakub Haloda (left) and Grigory Yakovlev

There’s a lot of excitement about the fall because it’s the first time a meteorite was found based on coordinated all-sky camera network observations by the Ursa Finnish Fireball Network.  Esko Lyytinen of the network with help from Jarmo Moilanen and Steinar Midtskogen reconstructed the meteoroid’s trajectory and dark flight (when it’s no longer luminous but yet to strike the ground) using simulations based on photos, videos and eyewitness reports. 

Kola fireball meteors ended up near the Russian-Norwegian border. The fireball trajectory Esko Lyytinen of Ursa modeling of Heaven, watch videos on the findings and Murmansk.
Kola fireball meteors fell near the Russian-Norwegian border. The
fireball trajectory was modeled  byEsko Lyytinen of the Ursa Finnish Fireball Network. Credit: Kuva Mikko Suominen / Celestia with info boxes translated by the author

The initial mass of meteoroid is estimated at about 1,100 pounds (500 kg). Much of that broke apart in the atmosphere and fell harmlessly as smaller stones. An international team of scientists mounted a 5-day expedition in late May after snow melt and before green up to uncover potential space rocks in the strewnfield, the name given to the oval-shaped zone where surviving fragments pepper the ground. 

Russian amateur astronomer Nikolai Kruglikov discovered the first fragment of Annama meteorite on May 29, 2014 in the middle of a dirt road. Credit: Tomas Kohout
Russian amateur astronomer Nikolai Kruglikov discovered the first meteorite fragment in the middle of a dirt road. Credit: Tomas Kohout

On May 29, 2014, first 120 gram (4.2 ounce) meteorite fragment was found by Nikolai Kruglikov of Russia’s Ural Federal University on a forest road within the predicted impact area. The crew had been searching 1o hours a day when Kruglikov stopped the car to check out a suspect rock:

 “Suddenly he started dancing and yelling. At first I could hardly believe it was a true discovery, but then I checked the composition of the rock using my instrument”, said Tomas Kohout, University of Helsinki physicist who participated in the hunt. The fusion-crusted stone displayed classic flow features from melting rock during high-speed atmospheric entry.

The very next day a second 48 gram crusted meteorite popped up. More are undoubtedly out there but the heavy brush numerous lakes make the finding challenging. 

The crew is calling the new arrival the ‘Annama meteorite’ as it fell near the Annama River in Russia about 62 miles west of Murmansk.  The Czech Geological Survey examined the space rocks and determined them to be ordinary chondrites representing the outer crust of an asteroid that got busted to bits in a long-ago collision. More than 95% of stony meteorites fall into this category including the 2013 fireball of Chelyabinsk, Russia. 

 


Dashcam video of the brilliant fireball that dropped the ‘Annama meteorites’

“The Kola fireball is a rarity – it is one of only 22 cases where it was possible to determine its pre-impact solar system orbit before the impact with Earth’s atmosphere,” says Maria Gritsevich of the Finnish Geodetic Institute. “Knowing where the meteorite originates will help us better understand the formation and evolution of the solar system.” Congratulations Ursa!

“Tea, Earl Grey, Hot”… How Scientists Replicated a Mars Meteorite


Captain Picard orders tea

“Tea, Earl Grey, hot.” Who doesn’t remember that famous command by Captain Picard’s of TV’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation”? While no one’s yet invented a replicator that can brew a cup of tea out of thin air, scientists have taken in step in that direction by creating an amazing replica of a Martian meteorite using a 3D printer.

Without the fuss and expense of a sample retrieving mission to Mars, NASA scientists now have a realistic, true to life facsimile of the ‘Block Island’ meteorite discovered by the Opportunity Rover in 2009. Block Island, an iron-nickel meteorite similar to those found at Meteor Crater in Arizona, is the largest meteorite found on the Red Planet.

The real Block Island, the largest meteorite yet found on Mars, photographed by Opportunity's panoramic camera.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell
The real Block Island, the largest meteorite yet found on Mars, photographed by Opportunity’s panoramic camera.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell

Measuring about two feet (60 cm) across, it’s about the size of picnic cooler and weighs an estimated 1,000 pounds. The replica’s made of plastic – you could tote it around like a … picnic cooler.

Analysis of Block Island’s composition using the rover’s alpha particle X-ray spectrometer confirmed that it’s rich in iron and nickel. Scientists based the design of the plastic meteorite on detailed measurements and stereo images taken by Opportunity’s panoramic camera.

Get out your red-blue plastic glasses to get a look at Block Island in stereo. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Get out your red-blue plastic glasses to get a look at Block Island in stereo. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The rover made a 360-degree study of the meteorite five years ago taking measurements and many stereo images. But because Opportunity couldn’t see every square inch of the rock, the missing data created holes in the computer model, making it a poor candidate for 3D printing.

Last summer, scientists got around that problem by filling in the missing data and building small scale models of Block Island. To build the life-sized rock, they created depth meshes of the meteorite’s surface from six positions, then combined them into a three-dimensional digital model, according to researcher Kris Capraro of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Researcher Kris Capraro (second from left) adds the finishing touches of realistic color to a model of the "Block Island" meteorite.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Researcher Kris Capraro (second from left) adds the finishing touches of realistic color to a model of the “Block Island” meteorite.Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The printer built the meteorite from ABS plastic, the same material used in Lego bricks, with cord the width of the plastic line in your weed-whacker. One small problem remained before the replica could be executed – it was too big to fit in the printer’s building space. So researchers broke up the computer model of the meteorite into 11 sections. Printing took 305 hours and 36 minutes.

Researchers created each of 11 pieces in the 3D printer and glued them together to build the true-size model. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Researchers created each of 11 pieces in the 3D printer and glued them together to build the true-size model. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The sections were assembled and then painted to match the real rock. Said Capraro: “it’s the next best thing to bringing back real Martian rock samples back to Earth.”

Scientists hope someday to use 3D printing to not only replicate more Mars rocks but terrains across the solar system.