Original article was published by Will Lockett on Artificial Intelligence on Medium
Did We Discover Martians In 1984?
In 1984 a meteorite was found in Antarctica that turned out to be a fragment of the Red Planet. Hidden within this ancient artefact could be the remains of Martians.
What if I told you that we discovered a Martian fossil in an Antarctic Meteorite? It almost seems like something straight out of Sci-Fi. Yet there is a real probability that we did. What’s more, this meteorite can help us paint a picture of ancient Mars — a time when it would have been warm, wet and habitable. Needless to say, such a discovery is not without its sceptics, so strap in for the most outrageous Astrobiological discovery ever.
American scientists were wondering about the Antarctic in 1984 looking for meteorites. They found several during their trip to the bottom of the world. But the one found on December 27th was unique. The meteorite was named AH84001, and it turned out to be a chunk of Martian rock that had been blown off the planet’s surface by an enormous meteorite impact some 17 million years ago. This fragment then orbited the Sun until 13,000 years ago when it fell and landed in the Allan Hills on the fridged continent of Antarctica.
Upon inspection, the scientists saw the chemical makeup of this meteorite meant it must have come from Mars. Since then this inconspicuous looking lump of rock has been studied six ways from Sunday an in the process has caused speculations to run wild!
In 1996 a paper was published that claimed to have found something on the meteorite that seemed too good to be true — fossils of Ancient Martians. I’m not talking about a fossil skull or a Martian version of a T-Rex, instead, under an electron microscope, the scientists saw what looked like fossilised bacteria.
The rod-like structure in the image above is one of many found on AH84001. These are the potential ancient fossils of Martian bacteria, also known as biomorphs (as they are blobs that could be biological in origin). They are utterly tiny at 20 to 100 nanometers long, which makes them significantly smaller than any single-celled organisms alive today.
In fact, it is this size which initially cast doubt on the credibility of these fossils. The smallest single-celled organisms on Earth alive today, Mycoplasma genitalium, is twice the size of these structures. This makes the fossils smaller than the theoretical limit for how small a cell walled organism can be.
But, this doesn’t 100% disprove the biological origin of these biomorphs. Martian life could have evolved to be smaller by using different processes; after all, this would be a completely separate origin of life to our own. Furthermore, this could actually be a ‘protocell’ that isn’t quite as advanced as any cells we know of, but instead an earlier more primitive form. An even more outlandish idea is that they could be dried out cells that have shrivelled up and then been fossilised, making them appear to be smaller than they actually were.
You can already see, the controversy surrounding this discovery is on a new level! So I will tell both sides of the story because they both have their points.
Firstly, let’s get the disappointing one out the way. What if this isn’t a Martian fossil? What else could it be?
Well, similar results have been successfully created in a lab that attempted to recreate the conditions in which this rock was formed. They saw these small rod-like structures emerge from the setting rock. This at least shows that there is a non-biological way these structures could be made. This doesn’t disprove the biological origin; instead, it opens the door for a non-biological origin, which is rather dull.
However, if these ‘biomorphs’ aren’t fossils it isn’t quite the end of the road for this meteorite, but more on that later.
So what are the implications of these ‘biomorphs’ actually being fossils? In short, it re-writes the book on extraterrestrial life.
While the impact that sent this hunk of rock flying to Earth was 17 million years ago, the fossils would have died a significantly longer time ago than that!
Estimates for the age of the rock are all over 4 Billion years old!
That means that, if these are fossils, life most likely started on Mars way before Earth! Earth may have had life at this time, but it probably hadn’t evolved into organisms with cell walls, or even ‘protocells’. Whereas on Mars, life was already something akin to a complex single-celled organism.
If life had started this early on Mars, it shows that life should be a lot more common all over the Universe. While Mars had the right environment for life (more on that later), it looks like it may have lacked some of the critical features needed for life to start in the first place, such as tectonics, certain minerals and a magnetosphere. But if life could have started quickly under these conditions, it raises the chances of finding it on all sorts of planets and moons across the Universe.
It looks like, for now, we can’t prove the origin of the biomorphs either way. But we might not have to as recent analysis has found even more unique things in AH84001.
You see, while this lumps and bumps look like life, there is more evidence hidden within the rock itself — namely evidence of a habitable climate when the rock formed as well as organic chemistry.
The carbonates within the meteorite hold a record of the conditions it formed in. These traces indicate that the rock formed in a near-surface water-filled environment at a temperature of 18 °C (64 °F) with plenty of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is spookily similar to how Earth looked when we believe life started.
In fact, this makes early Mars sound like quite a nice place to be, all you need is a little more oxygen and nitrogen (likely causing the air pressure better for us too) and we would feel right at home!
This discovery in conjunction with the organic chemistry found within the rock is fantastic and gives us hope that we might find conclusive evidence of life on Mars.
Organic chemistry refers to the complex chemistry that revolves around carbon atoms. It isn’t life, but it is the chemistry that leads to life.
Scientists have found Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons embedded within the rock (organic chemistry). However, this could be a byproduct of the meteorites time in space. What is even more exciting is a recent study’s discovery of nitrogen-bearing organic molecules.
This is strong evidence that Mars, 4 billion years ago, had organic chemistry happening in its warm waters. Chemical reactions creating the building blocks of life!
Could some of these floating bits of organic chemistry come together around an ancient Martian source of energy to create basic life? It is certainly possible.
So did we find Martians in 1984?
As you can see, it is difficult to answer this with any accuracy. The meteorite shows that the conditions on Mars were pretty damn good for life 4 billion years ago. However, the fact that scientists have easily recreated the fossil-like biomorphs in a lab without the need for life suggests that we didn’t find fossils of ancient Martians.
However, there still is a chance that these biomorphs are fossils, and that we have only created similar-looking structures in labs. Hopefully, we may find out soon though, thanks to a rather large robot.
Currently, NASA’s Curiosity Rover is in a region Mars known as Gale Creator. Within this creator is the exposed sediment from a dried-up lake bed. However, rather than the deposits being exposed top-down, so that the youngest layer of sediment is exposed, it is exposed side on, so ancient sediment is revealed along with newer deposits.
These old deposits would have been laid down in a very similar environment to the one that our meteorite was made in. These sediments are younger than AH84001, but Mars was still a warm water world. So if Curiosity can find other biosignatures along with similar biomorphs of these ancient Martians, then all of the evidence will point to that fact that we did discover Martians in 1984.
However, until Curiosity (or another rover/crewed mission) discovers more evidence of these ancient Martians, we won’t know for sure.
At the very least, the fact that this is a possibility boggles the mind and shows us that the Universe may be teeming with undiscovered life.