Rare meteorite gives clues to the early history of Mars

Apart from the ages and geochemistry of a few hundred zircon grains we have no direct evidence of what the earliest crust of the Earth was like. The vast bulk of the present crust is younger than about 4 billion years. The oldest tangible crustal rocks occur in the 4.2 billion year (Ga) old Nuvvuagittuq greenstone belt on Hudson Bay. The oldest zircon grains have compositions that suggest that they formed during the crystallisation of andesitic magmas about 4.4 Ga ago about 140 Ma after the Earth accreted. But, according to an idea that emerged decades ago, that does not necessarily represent the earliest geology. Geochemists have shown that the bulk compositions of the Earth and Moon are so similar that they almost certainly share an early history. Rocks from the lunar highlands – the light areas that surround the dark basaltic maria – collected during the Apollo missions are significantly older (up to 4.51 Ga). They are made mainly of calcium-rich feldspars. These anorthosites have a lower density that basaltic magma. So it is likely that the feldspars crystallised from an all-enveloping ‘magma ocean’ and floated to form an upper crust on the moon. Such a liquid outer layer could only have formed by a staggering input of energy. It is believed that what became the Moon was flung from the Earth following collision with another planetary body as vapour, which then collapsed under gravity and condensed to a molten state (see: Moon formed from vapour cloud; January 2008). Crystallisation of the bulk of anorthosites has been dated to between 4.42 to 4.35 Ga (see: Moon-forming impact dated; March 2009). The Earth would likely have had a similar magma ocean produced by the impact (a much fuller discussion can be found here), but no tangible trace has been discovered, though there is subtle geochemical evidence.

The surface geology of Mars has been mapped in great detail from orbiting satellites and various surface Rovers have examined sedimentary rocks – one of them is currently collecting samples for eventual return to Earth. Currently, the only materials with a probable Martian origin are rare meteorites; there are 224 of them out of 61 thousand meteorites in collections. They are deemed to have been flung from its surface by powerful impacts to land fortuitously on Earth. It is possible to estimate when they were ejected from the effects of cosmic-ray bombardment to which they were exposed after ejection, which produces radioactive isotopes of a variety of elements that can be used in dating. So far, those analysed were flung into space no more than 20 Ma ago. Meteorites with isotopic ‘signatures’ and mineral contents so different from others and from terrestrial igneous rocks are deemed to have a Martian origin by a process of elimination. They also contain proportions of noble gases (H, Ne, Ar, Kr and Xe) that resemble that of the present atmosphere of Mars. Almost all of them are mafic to ultramafic igneous rocks in two groups: about 25 % that have been dated at between 1.4 to 1.3 Ga; the rest are much younger at about 180 Ma. But one that was recovered from the desert surface in West Sahara, NW Africa (NWA 7034, nicknamed ‘Black Beauty’) is unique. It is a breccia mainly made of materials derived from a sodium-rich basaltic andesite source, and contains much more water than all other Martian meteorites.

The ‘Black Beauty’ meteorite from Mars (NWA 7035) with a polished surface and a 2 mm wide microscope view of a thin section: the pale clasts are fragments of pyroxenes and plagioclase feldspars; the rounded dark grey clast is a fine-grained basaltic andesite. (Credits: NASA; Andrew Tindall)

If you would like to study the make-up of NWA 7035 in detail you can explore it and other Martian meteorites by visiting the Virtual Microsope devised by Dr Andrew Tindall and Kevin Quick of the British Open University.

The initial dating of NWA 7034 by a variety of methods yielded ages between 1.5 to 1.0 Ga, but these turned out to represent radiometric ‘resetting’ by a high-energy impact event around 1.5 Ga ago. Its present texture of broken clasts set in a fine-grained matrix suggests that the breccia formed from older crustal rock smashed and ejected during that impact to form a debris ‘blanket’ around the crater. Cosmogenic dating of the meteorite indicates that the debris was again flung from the surface of Mars at some time in the last 10 Ma to launch NWA 7034 beyond Mars’s gravitational field eventually to land in northwest Africa. But that is not the end of the story, because increasingly intricate radiometric dating has been conducted more recently.

‘Black Beauty’ contains rock and mineral fragments that have yielded dates as old as 4.48 Ga. So the breccia seems to have formed from fragments of the early crust of Mars. Indeed it represents the oldest planetary rock that has ever come to light. Some meteorites (carbonaceous chondrites) date back to the origin of the Solar System at around 4.56 Ga ago, and were a major contributor to the bulk composition of the rocky planets. However, the material in NWA 7034 could only have evolved from such primordial materials through processes taking place within the mantle of Mars. That was very early in the planet’s history: less than 80 Ma after it first began to accrete. It could therefore be a key to the early history of all the rocky planets, including the Earth.

There are several scenarios that might account for the composition of NWA 7034. The magma from which its components originated may have been produced by direct partial melting of the planet’s mantle shortly after accretion. However, experimental partial melting of ultramafic mantle suggests that andesitic magmas would be unlikely to form by such a primary process. But other kinds of compositional differentiation, perhaps in an original magma ocean, remain to be explored. Unlike the Earth-Moon system, there is no evidence for anorthosites exposed at the Martian surface that would have floated to become crust once such a vast amount of melt began to cool. Some scientists, however, have suggested that to be a possibility for early Mars. Another hypothesis, by analogy with what is known about the earliest Archaean processes on Earth, is secondary melting of a primordial basaltic crust, akin to the formation of Earth’s early continental crust.

Only a new robotic or crewed mission to the area from which NWA 7034  was ‘launched’ can take ideas much further. But where on Mars did ‘Black Beauty’ originate? A team from Australia, France, Cote d’ Ivoire, and the US have used a range of Martian data sets to narrow down the geographic possibilities (Lagain, A., and 13 others 2022. Early crustal processes revealed by the ejection site of the oldest martian meteorite. Nature Communications, v. 13, article 3782; DOI 10.1038/s41467-022-31444-8). The meteorite contains a substantially higher content of the elements thorium and potassium than do other Martian meteorites. Long-lived radioactive isotopes of K, Th and U generate gamma-ray emissions with distinctly different wavelengths and energy levels. Those for each element have been mapped from orbit. NWA 7034 also has very distinct magnetic properties, and detailed data on variations on the magnetic field intensity of Mars have also been acquired by remote sensing. Images from orbit allow relative ages of the surface to be roughly mapped from the varying density of impact craters: the older the surface, the more times it has been struck by projectiles of all sizes. These data also detect of craters large enough to have massively disrupted Martian crustal materials to form large blankets of impact breccias like NWA 7034. That is, ‘targets’ for the much later impact that sent the meteorite Earthwards. Using a supercomputer, Lagain et al. have cut the possibilities down to 19 likely locations. Their favoured source is the relatively young Karratha crater in the Southern Hemisphere to the west of the Tharsis Bulge. It formed on a large ejecta blanket associated with the ancient (~1.5 Ga) 40 km wide Khujirt crater.

Interesting, but sufficiently so to warrant an awesome bet in the form of a mission budget?

Bling from space

People have a keen eye for unusual objects and an even keener one for the aesthetic. Fossil echinoderms with their five-fold starry shape have been enduringly popular as trinkets since the Palaeolithic. Astonishingly, the gravel terrace at Swanscombe that yielded skull fragments of 400 ka Homo erectus plus many Acheulean tools also contained a flint bi-face ‘hand axe’ with a near perfect echinoid in its blunt grip. It cannot be proven, but the object seems to refute the idea that an artistic sense only arose with anatomically modern humans in the last 100 ka. Our immediate ancestors of the Neolithic sometimes took collecting to extremes in graves half full of fossil sea urchins (McNamara, K.J. 2007. Shepherds’ crowns, fairy loaves and thunderstones: the mythology of fossil echinoids in England. In: Piccardi, L. & Masse, W.B. Myth and Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publication 273, 279–294).

Before the invention of metal smelting native gold, iron and copper appear in the archaeological record, undoubtedly because they look and indeed feel so different from the usual pebbles on the beach or just lying around. It is just that element of the odd that continues to draw people, including scientists, into a perpetually stooped posture when the walk across surfaces scattered with pebbles and boulders. The habit is especially hard to shake off for the meteoriticist whose hunting grounds are desert plains and ice caps where oddities are easy to spot, even when rare. So it is interesting when such dogged searchers encounter evidence of long-dead people having done much the same.

By 5300 years ago people had settled in small farming communities in the Nile Valley eventually to develop on the shores of lake – now represented by several smaller water bodies – what is regarded as the world’s first city near modern Faiyum. These Predynastic people buried their dead nearer to the Nile at Gerzeh, often sending them off with grave goods. The site has been continually excavated by professional archaeologists for more than a century, beginning with Sir Flinders Petrie. Two of the graves contained metallic iron beads, which presented a puzzle as iron smelting is only known from the 6th century BCE onwards. Unsurprisingly, the beads came to be regarded as artefacts wrought from an iron meteorite, though their highly altered nature and intrinsic value thwarted attempts at full analysis. Geochemists from the Open and Manchester Universities, and the Natural History Museum have now resolved the issue (Johnson, D. et al. 2013. Analysis of a prehistoric Egyptian iron bead with implications for the use and perception of meteorite iron in ancient Egypt. Meteoritics and Planetary Science, on-line, DOI: 10.1111/maps.12120). Non-destructive electron microscopy and X-ray tomography reveal, respectively, clear signs of the banded Widmanstätten structures and traces of nickel-rich iron alloy (taenite) that typify iron meteorites but are absent from smelted iron. The beads were clearly beaten and rolled into shape, but this working did not destroy the tell-tale evidence of their origin.

Optical, microprobe and CT-scan images of Predynastic iron bead from the Nile Valley (credit: Open University)
Optical, microprobe and CT-scan images of Predynastic iron bead from the Nile Valley (credit: Open University)

This provenance tallies with the appearance in early New Kingdom hieroglyphs of the term biA-n-pt – literally iron-from-the-sky – which was adopted for smelted iron when first made in the 26 to 27th Dynasties. But pharaonic iron was not a poor relation of gold, regarded as flesh of the gods and hence featuring in the masks of Pharaohs such as Tutankhamen, but supposedly what their bones were made from.