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Life on Mars might Have gotten an early start, ‘Black Beauty’ meteorite suggests

This artist’s image illustrates the beginning of the solidification and the formation of the original crust of Mars, Jupiter, seen in the background (not to scale, of course). Credit: Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris

It didn’t take long for Mars to be a potential habitable world, a new study suggests.

The planet-formation process generates a lot of heat, so rocky worlds such as Mars and the Earth are covered by oceans of molten rock shortly after they form. Life as we know it is not a position until the oceans freeze into a crust — and this apparently happened quite early on the Red Planet, the new study reports.

“Already 20 million years after the formation of the solar system, Mars has a crust that is potentially in the house oceans and perhaps even life,” study co-author Martin Bizzarro, director of the Centre for Star and Planet Formation at the Natural National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, said in a statement. [The Search for Life on Mars (A Photo Timeline)]

That is about 130 million years earlier than this important event here on Earth, study team members said.

The researchers, under the leadership of Laura Bouvier, and Maria Costa, both also from the Centre for Star and Planet Formation — studied small pieces of 11.3 ounces (320 grams) Mars meteorite known as “Black Beauty”, which was discovered in the Sahara Desert in 2011.

A year ago, Bizzarro acquired 1.55 ounces (44 grams) of Black Beauty (official name: NWA 7034) — no small feat, considering the fact that pieces of the space rock to sell for about $10,000 per gram. (Bizzarro pulled it off by getting the funding from the assistance of different sources and the exchange of meteorites from the Natural National Museum of Denmark collection.)

The team destroyed about 0.18 ounces (5 grams) of their Black Beauty bit for a detailed look at his zircons, hardy mineral that scientists often use to figure out the exact age of the samples. (This is done by measuring how much of zircons’ native uranium is radioactive, due to expire in lead — a process that takes place in a regular and well-understood rate.)

“Zircon also acts as a little time capsule, as it retains information about the environment where and when it is made,” Bizzarro said in the same statement.

The researchers isolated seven zircons, which they found had formed between 4.43 billion and 4.48 billion years ago. The oldest of these seven is the most ancient Mars material ever dated directly, study team members said.

The team analyzed the isotopic composition of another element in the zircons, called hafnium. (Isotopes are variants of an element that have different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei.) This hafnium must originally have come from a frozen Martian crust, the researchers’ work proposed had been formed, not later than 4.547 billion years ago — just 20 million years after the solar system was born.

“So, is a primordial crust existed on Mars by this time and survived for about 100 Myr [million years] before it was reworked, possibly by effects to produce magmas from which the zircons crystallized,” the researchers wrote in the study, which was published last week in the journal Nature.

Scientists have already established that at least some parts of the Red Planet were probably capable of supporting Earth-like life a long time ago. NASA’s Curiosity rover, for example, discovered that Mars’ Gale Crater hosted a long-life, lake-and-stream system in the past.

But that changes greatly when Mars lost its global magnetic field about 4 billion years ago. The solar wind started with the stripping of the planet’s once-thick atmosphere, and the world is switched to the cold, dry desert it is today.

Originally published on Space.com.

 

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