The world of astronomy never ceases to be a source of amazement.
Researchers have recently determined that a rock found in the Moroccan desert in 2011 is not only a meteorite originating from Mars, but a new kind of Martian meteorite that is more than two billion years old.
The dark rock, weighing slightly more than two-thirds of a pound, has been nicknamed “Black Beauty,” which is much easier to remember than its decidedly less-catchy formal name of “Northwest Africa (NWA) 7034.”
Black Beauty’s texture and chemistry set it apart from all previous objects that originated on the Red Planet and have been found on the surface of the Earth, according to BBC News.
“It has some resemblance to the other Martian meteorites but it’s also distinctly different in other respects,” Carl Agee of the University of New Mexico told BBC News, “both in the way it just looks in hand sample, but also in its elemental composition.”
Interestingly, slightly more than 100 Martian meteorites are known to have been collected. These were dislodged from Mars by various impacts with asteroids or comets, and the meteors then spent millions of years travelling through space before falling to Earth, BBC News reported.
“Their discovery was mostly chance (few were seen in the act of falling) but their dark forms mean they will have caught the eye of meteorite hunters who scour desert sands and polar ice fields for rare rocks that can trade for tens of thousands of dollars,” the BBC added.
Virtually all known Martian meteorites can be put in one of three classifications, referred to as Shergotty, Nakhla and Chassigny, after key specimens. Scientists will often refer to these rocks simply as the “SNC” meteorites.
Agee and his colleagues assert that Black Beauty should be in its own class.
Black Beauty has about 10 times more water content (about 6,000 parts per million) than any of the 110 other known meteorites that have fallen to Earth from Mars, Agee’s research showed, suggesting that the meteorite probably came from the Martian surface, as opposed to deeper inside, according to CBS News.
The meteorite contains organic carbon similar to that found in other Martian meteorites, but it’s 10 times older that other Martian meteorites, according to the New York Times.
The meteorite most likely came from an explosive volcano, Agee said.
Its unusual composition – cemented fragments of basalt – is consistent with observations made by recent Martian rovers and orbiters, the Times added.
“This led researchers to conclude that the meteorite came from the planet’s crust,” according to the publication. “The water captured in the meteorite may have come from underground water or surface waters near the explosion, Dr. Agee said.”
The researchers’ analysis was reported in Science magazine.
(Above: Photo of Martian meteorite NWA 7034, or Black Beauty, found in Sahara Desert in Morocco in 2011.)