Scientists Discover Earthly Nitrogen in Ancient Martian Meteorite

Scientists Discover Earthly Nitrogen in Ancient Martian Meteorite

UFO sightings? Nitrogen? Other life? Is Mars the next planet Earth?

For many decades, humans have sought to discover how habitable other planets are and, more importantly, to discover if there are other autonomous beings elsewhere in the universe. This quest for knowledge has led to several explorations into space, and many more infiltrations being planned for the future. Given the proximity of Mars to the sun, more focus has been given to the planet and it has become an inevitable frontier for human exploration. However, while Mars might appear similar to Earth, there are vast differences between both planets, particularly in its ability to accommodate earthly organisms like us.

New research however suggests that there might have been belowground rivers on Mars that could have supported life. This information has birthed years of claims and counterclaims on whether or not the organic materials contained in the Allan Hills 84001 meteorite (discovered in 1984) came from Mars or Earth. [1]

In December 1984, a National Science Foundation team discovered the ALH84001 meteorite during a snowmobile ride on the far western Allan Hills icefield, located at the eastern terminus of the Transantarctic mountain range. The meteorite, which the team described as ‘highly-shocked, grayish-green, achondrite, 90% covered with fusion crust’ was the most unusual of all rocks found during the 1984-1985 field season, prompting it to be processed first. Years after it was incorrectly classified as a diogenite, scientists eventually identified it as a Martian meteorite. [2]

After its origin was determined, the next step was to find out if it contained any organic compounds which would help scientists understand if Mars once supported life. While it was confirmed that the meteorites contain organic materials, researchers and critics couldn’t rule out the possibility of contamination from Antarctica where it was found and the laboratory where the research was conducted.

A new study

To prevent contaminated particulates from flowing around, a team of researchers led by Mizuho Koike of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency employed new techniques. First, they used all new and specific analytical techniques, comprising a type of X-ray spectroscopy to detect nitrogen in ALH84001 and track it to the carbonate minerals.

Additionally, the team conducted the research in a ‘class-100 clean lab’ — a type of lab usually employed by manufacturers of advanced technologies, particularly in pharmaceutical and spacecraft production. This type of laboratory mandates anyone involved to wear sophisticated Hazmat suits while the airflow is constantly regulated. [3]

To quell all arguments that arose in previous research, the researchers peeled off tiny grains of carbonate before blowing them up with a beam of ions to eliminate any contaminants on the surface. The layer beneath, scientists say, contains chemicals present inside the meteorites before its arrival on earth.

Only then did they discover a high level of organic material, particularly carbon and nitrogen — two fundamental elements crucial on Earth for RNA, DNA, protein as well as other viral materials.

There are two main possibilities: either they came from outside Mars, or they formed on Mars. Early in the solar system’s history, Mars was likely showered with significant amounts of organic matter, for example from carbon-rich meteorites, comets, and dust particles. Some of them may have dissolved in the [Martian] brine and been trapped inside the carbonates,” study co-author Atsuko Kobayashi, of the Earth-Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, said in a statement. [4]

While it still is unclear if life once existed on Mars, this research brings us closer to the destination. One fact, however, is certain: if life did exist at any period on Mars, they had access to the same forms of nitrogen that Earthly life relies on.

An inch closer

The recent discovery is one of the motivations behind NASA’s plans to get humans to Mars by 2050. During the Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop, NASA mapped out a strategy that will see Mars become habitable in years to come. The plan is to build an artificial magnetosphere and launch it at L1 Lagrange Point — a space between the sun and Mars. This shield will protect Mars from radiation and solar winds that have ravaged the planet’s atmosphere for years, giving it time to regenerate the human-habitable atmosphere.

“This situation then eliminates many of the solar wind erosion processes that occur with the planet’s ionosphere and upper atmosphere allowing the Martian atmosphere to grow in pressure and temperature over time,” the researchers wrote. [5]

References

  1. Scientists Discover Evidence Of Ancient Martian Groundwater In Antarctica.” Ati. Marco Margaritoff. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  2. Magnetofossils from Ancient Mars: a Robust Biosignature in the Martian Meteorite ALH84001. PMC. Kathie L. Thomas-Keprta et al. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  3. Scientists discover evidence of ancient, nitrogen-rich Martian groundwater hiding in Antarctica.” Live Science. Rafi Letzter. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  4. ” 4-billion-year-old nitrogen-containing organic molecules discovered in Martian meteorites.” EurekAlert. Tokyo Institute of Technology. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  5. NASA Presents Bold New Plan To Make Mars Habitable.Ati. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
  6. Planet Mars, explained.” National Geographic. Michael Greshko. Retrieved June 2, 2020.
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