Minerals on ancient Martian rock formed in a habitable environment

August 29th, 2009 - 1:29 pm ICT by ANI  

London, August 29 (ANI): A new analysis has suggested that a rock found on Mars in 1996, which was claimed by scientists to host life, has minerals which could have only been formed in a habitable environment.

Researchers led by David McKay of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, caused a sensation 13 years ago when they proposed that a chunk of Mars rock found in Antarctica, called ALH 84001, contained possible signs of past life on the Red Planet, including complex carbon-based molecules and some microscopic objects shaped like bacteria.

But, the claim was never widely accepted.

Other scientists countered that the shapes were ambiguous and that the complex carbon-based molecules could have been produced without life, since they are also found in chunks of asteroids that fall to Earth as meteorites, for example.

Some argued that the carbon in the meteorite could have been deposited in very harsh conditions, involving water at more than 150 degrees Celsius.

Even the hardiest known terrestrial microbes die above about 120 degrees C.

But, according to a report in New Scientist, a new analysis suggests that the water involved was cool enough to allow for life, which at least keeps open the possibility of fossilized life in the meteorite.

The study was led by Paul Niles of NASA Johnson. Neither he nor any of the other team members were part of the 1996 life claim.

To explain deposits of minerals containing calcium, magnesium, and iron, in the rock, Niles and his colleagues suggest the rock was sitting at or near the surface of Mars, with water rich in carbon dioxide bubbling up to the surface in the area from deep underground, perhaps as part of a hot spring.

The relative amounts of the three metals deposited from solution depend on the temperature of the water they were dissolved in.

The team used previous measurements of these amounts to calculate a water temperature of less than 100 degrees C.

This was not a certainty beforehand, since water can remain liquid above that temperature at the higher pressures underground.

“These minerals were formed in what is very likely to have been a habitable environment,” Niles said.

The study shows there is still more to learn from what is “probably the single most examined rock in all of human history,” said Marc Fries of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. (ANI)

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