This site has been developed to fill a perceived need for an up-to-date source of accessible information specifically on Martian meteorites for educators, researchers and collectors. It is intended to be complementary to several other excellent websites, such as the NASA Mars Meteorite Compendium, which is a comprehensive summary of research information on Martian meteorites. A useful summary of all types of meteorites (including Martian examples) can be found on the Northern Arizona University website, and excellent images of most Martian (and other planetary) meteorites can be found on the Meteoris website. The author of the present site is an experienced educator and research scientist, who has been fortunate enough to be involved in initial and ongoing studies of many Martian meteorites (and who has benefited from the input of many generous colleagues, not all of whom are necessarily Martian afficionados). One colleague who deserves special mention is Dr. Ted Bunch, who not only has been a valued collaborator in our joint research on Martian meteorites, but who generously provided many of the thin section photomicrographs on the linked individual pages for Martian specimens (to be added soon).
What are meteorites?
Meteorites are objects
composed of rock and sometimes metal which are derived from various
solar system bodies, and after traveling through space land on the
surfaces of other solar system bodies (notably Earth, but also the Moon
and Mars, and no doubt other worlds). Most meteorites are not observed
to fall, but instead are found long afterwards, and then must be
subjected to a variety of forensic tests to ascertain their provenance.
It's truly a scientific detective story!
How did Martian meteorites get here?
Gravitational interactions among all bodies orbiting the Sun cause perturbations that result in collisions between some of them. Early in solar system history such collisions almost certainly were much more frequent and involved much larger masses, so it is not difficult to imagine that some fairly large bodies were destroyed and dispersed in such events. Today, the interactions that ultimately deliver meteorites to us are less energetic, yet still can cause small pieces of a large body struck by a smaller object to be ejected at a rate that exceeds the escape velocity needed to overcome the gravitational force of the larger body. For Mars (with a gravitational acceleration about 0.38 that of Earth) this requires a fairly energetic collision by a small asteroid onto the Martian surface. The material so excavated could consist of rocks outcropping at the surface and/or subsurface samples from a certain depth. In the early 1980s scientists were skeptical that specimens that we now know to come from Mars actually could be accelerated enough to escape Mars gravity. Once the Martian origin of some specimens became undeniable (see below), theorists were forced to reconsider the physics of this process, and discovered that it was indeed possible to eject material by a mechanism called spallation. The fact that all Martian meteorites show evidence of moderate to high shock pressures is very consistent with these conclusions.
How do we know they are pieces from Mars?
The detective work that eventually connected a small group of strange achondritic meteorites to a fairly well known planet is a remarkable philosophical achievement. Actually, solving this case depended on a relatively unheralded measurement by the two NASA Viking spacecraft that landed on Mars in 1976. Although sent to conduct experiments to detect extant life in Martian soil (which they did not), the Viking landers gained redemption of sorts because the instruments measured the amounts of different gases in the thin Martian atmosphere. Those same gases were first found in 1983 by Donald Bogard and Pratt Johnson in very small amounts (but in the exact same proportions) trapped within shock glass veins and pockets in shergottite Elephant Moraine 79001, and now in at least five other Martian meteorites (see plot).
So what about all of the other alleged Martian meteorites? It turns out that all of them have kinship based on several other diagnostic criteria: (1) they all contain iron-rich oxide minerals (magnetite, chromite, ilmenite) and no iron in metallic form, (2) they all contain an iron sulfide mineral called pyrrhotite, instead of troilite (as found typically in iron metal-bearing meteorites), (3) the pyroxene and olivine minerals within them have ratios of Fe (iron) to Mn (manganese) that are distinctive (see plot below), and mostly significantly, (4) they have a narrow range of oxygen isotopic compositions different from those of any other achondritic meteorites (see plot below). Taken together, these forensic measures constitute a preponderance of evidence that all the 82 or so proposed Martian meteorites are from the same body, and the atmospheric gas evidence proves beyond doubt that the body is in fact Mars. Thus, unlike the case for lunar meteorites, we have the curious circumstance of knowing that these specimens come from Mars even though humans have not yet obtained directly any rock samples from there. Even more intriguing is the fact that none of the Martian meteorites (possibly with one exception) seem to be very similar to the rock outcrops at any landing sites explored so far with robotic craft. However, the bulk FeO/MnO ratios for the freshest rocks at Gusev crater are very similar to the bulk FeO/MnO ratios for shergottites, providing another very strong link.
discrimination of planetary basaltic rocks. Magmatic rocks on different
compositions of planetary achondrites
What's in a name?
In the late 1970s
scientists came to realize that three odd groups of achondrites known at
that time (three shergottites, three nakhlites and a unique stone called
Chassigny) might be genetically related, and a few scientists (notably
Lewis Ashwal and Edward Stolper) even dared to hypothesize that all of
these may come from Mars. One line of argument was that since these were
all igneous rocks containing oxide minerals with iron partly in the
ferric form, they must come from a fairly large body capable of internal
melting, and furthermore one which is relatively oxidized. The 1976 NASA Viking
landers supported the conjecture that the distinctive overall reddish
color of Mars was caused by surface dust deposits that strongly
resembled mixtures of clay and ferric oxides, like those produced by
weathering of terrestrial lavas. In addition, radiometric dating of
several shergottites by Laurence Nyquist and colleagues demonstrated in
1979 that at least part of their parent body had experienced magmatism
within the last several hundred million years.
How many are there?
Until 1977 there were only six known specimens that were to become recognized as Martian meteorites. Today the number of separate Martian meteorites is about 82, although for some of these there is more than one officially recognized name, because of naturally paired stones or broken pieces of the same original single stone. One remarkable Martian meteorite (Elephant Moraine 79001) has two different lithologies in contact, but is still counted as one specimen here.
How big are they?
The largest Martian meteorite is Zagami at 18.0 kg (40 lbs), followed by Yamato 000593 and paired stones at 15.0 kg (33 lbs), Tissint at >12 kg (>26 lbs), Sayh al Uhaymir 005 and paired stones at 11.2 kg (25 lbs), Dar al Gani 476 and paired stones at 10.4 kg (23 lbs), and the numerous stones of Nakhla at 9.9 kg (22 lbs). The smallest unpaired Martian meteorites are Grove Mountains 020090 (7.5 grams), Grove Mountains 99027 (10 grams), Queen Alexandria Range 94201 (12 grams), Northwest Africa 4480 (13 grams) and Lewis Cliff 88516 (13.2 grams).
Where are they found? And by whom?
Annual expeditions to Antarctica since 1975 by Japanese, USA, and more recently Chinese government-sponsored teams have resulted in a steady increase in the number of Martian specimens. The first Antarctic Martian meteorite (Allan Hills 77005) was found on December 29, 1977, the second one in 1979, and the most recent one (Larkman Nunatak 06319) on January 17, 2007. Additionally, in the late 1990s exploration of the rocky deserts of Northwest Africa and Oman (supported largely by private collectors) led to a dramatic increase in recovered specimens that still has not abated. In fact, over half (59%) of all Martian meteorites found since 1975 are from Algeria, Morocco and adjacent regions; one is from Libya and four are from Oman. Video documentation about the discovery of the Ksar Ghilane 002 Martian meteorite in Tunisia is at (weblink). Although most meteorites must fall in the ocean, there can be no doubt that Martian meteorites have fallen on land everywhere, if only we could recognize them in forested or urban areas. There are other rocky deserts (for example, in Australia, Mongolia and the western USA) that would be fruitful places to search. Given the success of nomads in Northwest Africa and others in Oman, it must be concluded that future discoveries elsewhere are limited mainly by insufficient effort. Let's get going!
Statistics of unpaired Martian meteorite finds (numbers are NWA names; Unn = unnamed)
Four famous falls
The number of lunar meteorites (presently about 80 - see here) is similar to the number of Martian meteorites, yet not a single lunar meteorite has been witnessed to fall. In contrast, four Martian meteorites (Chassigny, Shergotty, Nakhla and Zagami) were observed striking this planet, and it is remarkable that these represent three of the major subgroups (Shergotty and Zagami are very similar to each other). The stories of the falls of these special meteorites in 1815, 1865, 1911 and 1962 are well documented elsewhere.
The Tissint, Morocco shergottite fall in 2011
The fifth witnessed fall of a Martian meteorite occurred in the early hours of July 18, 2011 in a remote rocky desert region southwest of Tissint, Morocco. The meteorite pieces (in total over 12 kilograms) were not found until about 4 months later, but the freshness of both the fusion crust and the interior of numerous broken fragments are quite consistent with the earlier visual and auditory accounts by local observers. The amounts of the short-lived cosmogenic nuclides 54Mn and 22Na detected in a specimen analyzed by Dr. John Duke at the University of Alberta are consistent with a very recent fall date (at least within the last 5 years). The meteorite was named Tissint (pronounced Tee.seent) after the village located about 70 km from the strewnfield. In Berber this name means “salt”, in reference to the saline water and salt deposits in this region on the north side of the Oued Drâa intermittent watershed, which separates Morocco from Algeria.
a different variety of shergottite from the two previous shergottite
falls (Shergotty and Zagami), but similar to a group of 11 other
shergottites (termed olivine-phyric) found elsewhere in northern Africa,
Oman and Antarctica. The large olivine grains exposed on the exterior of
the Tissint meteoroid melted in a distinctive way as it plunged through our atmosphere, as is
evident in the picture above. The obverse side of the same piece reveals
the pale gray interior with its sporadic pockets of vesicular black
glass (formed by shock as the material was ejected from Mars). If
Tissint is indeed like the other compositionally-similar olivine-phyric
shergottites, then it might be expected to have an igneous formation age
near 460 million years ago and may have been ejected (along with the
other 11 similar examples) about 1.1 million years ago.
Northwest Africa 7034 – The First Impact Breccia Meteorite from Mars
An unusual black, fragmental breccia specimen found as several stones purportedly near Bir Anzarane, southern Morocco in 2012 is the first available specimen of an impact breccia from the Martian crust. A 320 gram specimen was designated as NWA 7034, but additional stones have been found, two of which have been designated as NWA 7475 and NWA 7533. The key noble gas analyses to establish the presence of trapped Martian atmosphere in NWA 7034 were done by Dr. Julia Cartwright, and some other mineral chemical features of this specimen are consistent with those determined for shergottites (but with some surprising differences).
Ongoing studies by three teams led by Dr. Carl Agee, by Dr. Roger Hewins with Dr. Brigitte Zanda, and by Dr. Tony Irving with Dr. Axel Wittmann and Dr. Randy Korotev have discovered the following important aspects of this special specimen:
So what are the major deductions to be made so far regarding this specimen (keeping in mind that there is much more research to be done)? NWA 7034 and paired stones evidently represent a sample from the Amazonian (or older) Martian crust. The petrological and chemical evidence for an origin by impact processes may imply that this material derives from the more heavily-cratered southern hemisphere of Mars. The absence until now of such regolith breccia samples from Mars has been puzzling, given the broad similarity of the southern hemisphere terrain to that of the lunar highlands. The connection (if any) to the 1.3 billion year old nakhlites and chassignites has yet to be established, but there is no doubt that NWA 7034 has the potential to reveal new secrets about ancient Martian igneous, weathering and impact processes.
How to recognize a Martian meteorite
Some people think that Martian meteorites should be red in color, or perhaps green. In fact none are truly red or even brown (except for parts of some that have been weathered after they landed on Earth). Some Martian meteorites really are dark green (the nakhlites) and a few have pale greenish parts (some ultramafic shergottites), but most are gray or khaki-gray in color, and others are brown or even black (as a result of shock darkening). I sometimes ask students as an extra credit question on exams: “What color are the rocks on Mars?” Even though during lectures I show images of obviously gray outcrops at the Pathfinder or Spirit landing sites (some partly covered with reddish dust), inevitably many students answer that the rocks are red!
stone Northwest Africa 4468.
Africa 2975 stone, showing wrinkled fusion crust and gray interior
Mars Pathfinder landing site in Ares Vallis. Note the gray rocks covered by red-brown dust.
A lot of
metamorphosed terrestrial basaltic rocks (sometimes called greenstones)
contain green minerals (such as chlorite, actinolite, epidote and
serpentine), and these are the specimens most commonly mistaken by
amateur collectors as Martian meteorites. Without detailed testing, one
way to recognize a possible Martian meteorite is to look for obvious
fusion crust, which is a thin, black, glassy coating formed on the
exterior of all meteorites containing iron-bearing silicate minerals as
they plummet and decelerate through Earth's atmosphere. Unfortunately
most recently fallen stony meteorites of all types have black fusion
crusts, but if the
meteorite has resided on Earth for a long time any crust may have been
removed by weathering or wind-ablation.
Variation in mineral compositions
The major minerals (pyroxenes, olivine and plagioclase) in Martian meteorites show systematic compositional variations, depending on the bulk composition of each rock and the degree to which it underwent fractional crystallization during cooling and progressive solidification. Plagioclase compositions range from more sodic (i.e., lower in end-member component anorthite An) in nakhlites (An14-37, but mostly near An30) to typically much more calcic in shergottites (An33-74, but about half of that range in any given specimen). Pyroxenes in nakhlites are predominantly calcic (augite), whereas pyroxenes in shergottites are predominantly subcalcic (orthopyroxene and pigeonite), with augite present in most specimens as well. In a standard quadrilateral plot of the major end-member components (enstatite En, ferrosilite Fs, and wollastonite Wo), different specimens have differing patterns of compositional variation. One aspect of shergottites which is not evident from such plots is that wide variations in composition commonly occur within individual pyroxene grains. Such "chaotic" compositional zoning may reflect disequilibrium processes operative during solidification of shergottite magmas. Olivine in the more primitive shergottites typically also exhibits compositional zoning; however, there is evidence that some of this zoning has been differentially erased by diffusion in the more slowly cooled shergottites. Olivine in nakhlites and chassignites shows a narrower compositional range in keeping with the inferred formation of these rocks as igneous cumulates.
How are they classified? Why just one breccia specimen? What about sedimentary rocks?
Of the 82 known Martian meteorites, all but one are igneous rocks. Only one specimen (Northwest Africa 7034) is an impact-produced breccia (despite the fact that much of Mars is covered with impact craters). Among the igneous specimens, several ultramafic examples exhibit cataclastic structures and shock veining, but they are not fragmental breccias like those from the Moon or howardites. And so far no sedimentary rocks like those examined in the small area of the Meridiani Planum site have been recognized. The pie chart below sorts the 66 known igneous specimens on the basis of petrological categories based only on rock textures.
long-standing problem in studying natural things is what names to give
them. Nomenclature tends to be a human endeavor that changes over time,
as new understanding emerges. Ideally, scientific nomenclature should be
entirely descriptive with no hint of interpretation, but in practice
this is difficult to achieve. Scientists also have their own favorites,
and tend to want to retain some of the history of thinking on any
subject in the form of the names used. In the case of Martian
meteorites, three of the famous falls gave rise to the categories
shergottites, nakhlites and chassignites (the last of which had only one member
until the recovery in 2000 of Northwest Africa 2737). Then in 1984 the Allan
Hills 84001 meteorite was found (and eventually recognized to be Martian
in 1994). This rock is composed mainly of orthopyroxene (with tiny
carbonate-rich regions), and it came to be called an
orthopyroxenite (which is a name applied to similar terrestrial
rocks). If we used terrestrial rock names, the shergottites might be
called pigeonite basalts (although they are not strictly basalts like
those on Earth), the nakhlites would be called olivine
clinopyroxenites, and the chassignites would be called dunites.
Zagami and similar olivine-free specimens commonly have been called
basaltic shergottites, but
a better term would be mafic shergottites (or perhaps
pigeonite-plagioclase shergottites). With the subsequent
discovery of olivine-bearing shergottites, such as Elephant Moraine
79001, Dar al Gani 476, Sayh al Uhaymir 005 and Northwest Africa 1068,
the term olivine-phyric shergottite has come into wide
usage. This term refers to the fact that the olivine grains are
relatively large and easily visible (like in porphyritic terrestrial
basaltic lavas); it is preferable to the term picritic, which was used
initially for Northwest Africa 1068. A variant of this term,
olivine-orthopyroxene-phyric shergottite, has been applied to
Northwest Africa 1195 and several other specimens in recognition that both
olivine and orthopyroxene are present as early-formed crystals (or
phenocrysts). The large crystals in Northwest Africa 1195 show a
preferred orientation of their longest dimensions, which probably is
indicative of magmatic flow within a subsurface conduit (and explains
the unusual elongated shape of the NWA 1195 stone).
primitive shergottites discovered so far are Yamato
980459/980497 and Northwest Africa 5789. Yamato 980459 is an unusual
olivine-phyric volcanic or shallow intrusive rock that does not contain
any plagioclase (or maskelynite) – but it probably would have, if it had
not crystallized so rapidly to form its distinctive quenched groundmass.
Northwest Africa 5789 is another olivine-phyric shergottite containing
only a few volume percent plagioclase, so it actually is almost an
ultramafic rock (yet very different from ALH 77005 and related
poikilitic rocks). These specimens contain very magnesian olivine (with
Mg/(Mg+Fe) of 0.85-0.86), implying that they crystallized from
mantle-derived magmas which rose so rapidly to the surface that
essentially no fractional crystallization took place. We can make a very
important inference from these specimens about the Martian mantle: it
must be composed mainly of olivine and low-Ca pyroxene and must have a
magnesium to iron ratio very similar to that of the Earth's mantle
(although the abundances of both magnesium and iron must be
higher in the Martian mantle).
A better classification scheme based on bulk chemical compositions
Since 1989 terrestrial volcanic (and even some shallow intrusive rocks) have been classified on the basis of their bulk chemical compositions rather than their mineralogical characteristics. This became necessary for several reasons: (1) numerous traditional names were confusing (in some cases different regional names were given to essentially the same type of rock), and (2) more rapidly cooled rocks commonly contain variable (but in some cases abundant) amounts of glass or very fine grained mesostasis, which is impossible or difficult to characterize mineralogically. On Earth, rocks such as basalt, andesite, phonolite, etc. have well-defined ranges of bulk chemical composition, even though they also have distinctive mineralogies. The same type of approach now may be necessary for the burgeoning collection of Martian igneous rocks that we have in the form of meteorites, and a proposed scheme is illustrated below. The boundaries separating the mafic, permafic and ultramafic categories are drawn somewhat arbitrarily, but fall within logical gaps in the current data array.
Within this framework of major element classes, it also is possible to designate textural type and the trace element/radiogenic isotopic characteristics that discriminate among the three different mantle source types (see below).
Classification Matrix for Shergottites (56)
Two olivine-phyric shergottites (NWA 6162 and Tissint) have been called permafic in the matrix chart above, even though at least one of these specimens plots in the ultramafic field. The reason is that these two specimens contain an apparent excess of large olivine crystals which evidently accumulated into the magmas before they ascended towards the surface of Mars. In fact, most of the olivine-phyric shergottites (except Yamato 980459, NWA 5789, and NWA 2990 and paired stones) contain differing amounts of excess olivine crystals, and thus their bulk compositions do not represent those of just the magmatic liquids (and they really should plot further to the left on the chart of Mg/(Mg+Fe) versus CaO). Scientists can decipher this anomaly because the compositions of the cores of the large olivine crystals in these shergottites are too magnesian to have been in equilibrium with the measured bulk compositions. The concept that early-formed olivine crystals might tend to accumulate into other batches of mafic magma in subsurface reservoirs is supported by well-documented examples of terrestrial basaltic lava flows containing such excess olivine crystals, notably the 1868 picritic basalt lava flow from Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii.
Trace element characteristics of shergottites
A remarkable observation about the 56 known shergottites is that their trace element characteristics define just three different groups, termed depleted, intermediate and “enriched”. These same separate groupings are mirrored in their radiogenic isotopic compositions (see below). Within each of these major groups there is some variation, especially for those elements that are affected by fractional crystallization. However, for the group of 15 rare earth elements the abundances relative to those of chondrites are quite distinct in their patterns (see figure below). Because these patterns are controlled predominantly by the chemical composition and mineralogy of their mantle source regions, it can be concluded that there may be just three separate and different types of mantle domains within Mars from which shergottites were produced by partial melting (and which never convectively mixed with each other).
Why are Martian meteorites important? Where on Mars do they come from?
the stunning success of the six landed spacecraft on Mars, the only
actual Martian samples available for study on Earth are the Martian
meteorites. Scientists can conduct many more specialized analyses on
rock samples in terrestrial laboratories than it is possible to do with
remote robotic craft. For example, the exact mineralogy, mineral
chemistry and formation age of a rock on Mars cannot be determined
remotely. Still, the various rovers have provided invaluable in situ
morphological and chemical data about surface outcrops on Mars which are
not possible to obtain in other ways. Perhaps the most remarkable
finding is that the rocks at the landing sites are quite different from
the Martian meteorites. Based on studies by Jutta Zipfel and colleagues
of spectral data collected by the Opportunity rover, only one rock
("Bounce" at Meridiani Planum) might be compositionally similar to some
olivine-free shergottites. The rocks at the Pathfinder and Spirit
sites do appear to be fine grained to porphyritic lavas somewhat like
the shergottites, but they are different in detail. Many of them have
been pervasively modified from their original igneous state by
hydrothermal alteration or weathering processes, evidence of which we
see fairly clearly (but much less extensively) only in one group of Martian
meteorites, the nakhlites. Reasonable estimates of the ages of rocks at
the landing sites (based on impact crater densities determined from
orbit) are in the range 3-4 billion years, which is much older than the
ages determined for all but one of the Martian meteorites found so far.
(Above) Thin wafer
transmission Mössbauer spectrum of shergottite
difficult to be sure where on Mars the 82 Martian meteorites come from.
First, unlike the situation with lunar meteorites, they probably do not
come from 82 different sites, but instead more like 6 to 8 separate sites.
This is because more of the Martian meteorites probably are launch
paired; that is, they probably are pieces from different parts of single
lava flows or subsurface intrusions that are slightly different from
each other (due to natural heterogeneity in mineralogy and texture), but
which nevertheless are genetically related. We suspect this because of
clustering of cosmic ray exposure ages, which probably means that a
collection of disaggregated (but not necessarily originally adjacent)
fragments were ejected from certain target sites on Mars and traveled to
Earth together. A fascinating implication from this is that launch
paired pieces need not land in the same country (or even on the same
continent) on Earth.
An exquisite image of
the 85 x 60 kilometer summit nested caldera of Olympus
How old are they?
The apparent formation ages of the igneous rocks represented by Martian meteorites have generated considerable discussion. Some scientists would deem this a controversy, but it might be more properly called a dominant opinion countered by a minority view. The overwhelming body of evidence based on careful radiometric dating studies utilizing Rb-Sr, Sm-Nd, Lu-Hf and Ar-Ar systems applied to whole rocks and separated minerals, as well as the U-Pb system applied to baddeleyite, is that all of the shergottites have relatively young crystallization ages ranging from 150 to 590 Ma ago. The nakhlites and chassignites have crystallization ages near 1.3 Ga, and Allan Hills 84001 has a Sm-Nd formation age >4.5 Ga and contains carbonates that were added at 3.9 Ga. [Note that the abbreviation for million years is Ma (Mega-annums) and for billion years is Ga (Giga-annums)]
The minority view championed by one research group is that all the ages of shergottites were reset by shock events and/or hydrothermal alteration on Mars prior to meteorite ejection, and that their true crystallization ages are around 4.1-4.3 Ga. This conclusion is based on a particular interpretation of whole rock Pb-Pb isotopic data for shergottites. Most scientists reject this claim because there is no evidence of sufficient pre-ejection shock or hydrothermal alteration in the meteorite specimens, and because there are plausible alternative explanations for the Pb-Pb isotopic arrays as mixing lines involving terrestrial or (more likely) Martian crustal contaminants. The dominant view of the crystallization ages of dated shergottites is shown in a plot above, which also highlights the remarkable discovery that the different shergottites must be magmas formed by melting of just three distinct types of mantle geochemical reservoirs (depleted, intermediate and enriched).
The range of ejection ages for all Martian meteorites is shown in a second plot, and a third plot (below) shows both types of ages together. In addition, the terrestrial residence times for some Martian meteorites (as long as they are less than about 40,000 years) can be measured from the content of radioactive carbon-14 produced by cosmic ray interaction with oxygen atoms while the meteoroid was in space. For longer residence times, different cosmogenic isotopes are measured to obtain such estimates. These terrestrial ages range from essentially zero for falls (and Northwest Africa 1460) up to about 450,000 years (for Northwest Africa 4925).
Martian mantle sources and implications for an ancient magma ocean
Mafic to ultramafic igneous rocks produced by partial melting of planetary mantles inherit isotopic characteristics from their deep source regions, and also can acquire secondary isotopic characteristics by reaction with mantle metasomatic fluids and/or by assimilation of crustal rocks during ascent. The neodymium and strontium isotopic parameters for shergottites and nakhlites exhibit a remarkable grouping into just four different and widely separated categories (see plot below). Are these groups a reflection of four different mantle source characteristics, or do they represent in part an overprint of subsequent isotopic components related to metasomatism and/or assimilation? A somewhat similar pattern observed for terrestrial basalts has been interpreted as signifying the variable operation of all these processes, but do similar processes occur also in Mars? For Earth, the metasomatic and assimilation processes almost certainly involve fluids rich in water, but for Mars it may very well be that similar processes (if they have operated at all) were mediated by fluids rich in halogens instead.
terrestrial basaltic and mantle rocks have led to a consensus that the
Earth's mantle crystallized from an ancient magma ocean generated as a
consequence of formation of the metallic core. Although Mars is a much
smaller planet (possessing only 38% of the gravity of Earth), it too
apparently has a metal and/or iron sulfide-rich core, and it almost
certainly had an ancient magma ocean. Yet the smaller size of Mars and
consequent more rapid heat loss probably led to a much shorter duration
of convective mixing than for Earth – so much shorter that different
chemical reservoirs may have remained isolated from each other for a
very long time, even until 1.3 billion years ago (when the nakhlite and
chassignite parent magmas were generated by partial melting).
All Martian meteorites have been shocked to varying extents. They experienced shock upon ejection from Mars, and some may have experienced shock from impacts onto the surface of Mars before that. For discussion of these topics, please consult Bevan French's wonderful treatise “Traces of Catastrophe”, Jeffrey Taylor's excellent article on shock and heating in asteroids, and articles by Erin Walton and Christopher Herd on specific analysis of shock features in shergottites. The peak shock pressures and temperatures can be estimated from mineralogical criteria calibrated by experimental studies, and range from about 25 GPa for nakhlites to 60-80 GPa and up to 2000°C for some shergottites (e.g., Allan Hills 77005, Northwest Africa 4797, Northwest Africa 6342). Of special importance in this field of inquiry are phases such as maskelynite, “post-stishovite” (after shocked silica), various types of melt glasses, injection veins, and even vapor bubbles and vugs. The black or dark brown color of olivine in some Martian meteorites (notably chassignite Northwest Africa 2737, shergottite Northwest Africa 1195 and shergottite Northwest Africa 5990) is now understood to be caused by shock-induced, solid-state precipitation of nanometer-sized particles of metallic iron.
Evidence for life?
The Allan Hills 84001 meteorite caused a sensation because of claims made in 1996 by David McKay and coworkers that it contained a preponderance of proposed evidentiary markers for life on Mars about 3.6 Ga ago. Over a decade later this evidence has nearly all been refuted, although not everything in this remarkable meteorite has been fully explained. For a discussion of these issues, see Allan Treiman's thorough summary. One intriguing aspect that has resisted full explanation is the morphology of tiny magnetite grains, which resemble those produced by magnetotactic bacteria on Earth; however, similarly shaped crystals do not necessarily imply a similar mechanism of origin. Lost in the rancor is the fact that the carbonates within Allan Hills 84001 almost certainly signify that liquid water was present on and within Mars 3.6 Ga ago, at a time when the first known microbial life was active on Earth (based upon the fossilized stromatolite mats of that age from Western Australia). It has been said by some that even if the Allan Hills 84001 meteorite does not really contain bona fide evidence for ancient life on Mars, it has served to promote public, political and research interest in Mars. While that may be so, it is troubling to many scientists that such interest was engendered for less than the right reasons. Still other scientists would say that the debate generated by the original claims was healthy, and showed the process of scientific inquiry in action. Perhaps the discussion about the true formation ages of shergottites mentioned above is another such issue, although one that understandably does not carry with it the special fervor associated with the search for evidence of past or current extraterrestrial biology.
A wish list of Martian meteorites!
1. More truly ancient samples similar to (or even different from) Allan