Scientists trace world’s oldest Martian meteorite, dubbed ‘Black Beauty,’ to the very crater it came from

The world’s oldest Martian meteorite has been traced to the precise crater where it originated. Named “Black Beauty,” it formed almost 4.5 billion years ago and adds to evidence that Mars was once habitable.

The famous space rock found in the western Sahara formed part of a primordial crust that hosted oceans of water. Now an international team has pinpointed its exact home. They used a supercomputer to track its creation on the Red Planet in a province known as Terra Cimmeria-Sirenum.

Scientists say the location in the southern hemisphere of Mars has many gullies that could have been carved by flowing rivers. Black Beauty contains more water than other Martian meteorites. The crater Back Beauty came from has been named “Karratha” after a city in the Pilbara area of Western Australia renowned for its remarkably preserved rock formations.

“For the first time, we know the geological context of the only brecciated Martian sample available on Earth, 10 years before the NASA’s Mars Sample Return mission is set to send back samples collected by the Perseverance rover currently exploring the Jezero crater,” says lead author Dr. Anthony Lagain, of Curtin University, in a statement.

The international team want NASA to prioritize the area around Karratha Crater as a future landing site on Mars. Perseverance landed on Christmas Day. It is currently drilling for potential past signs of life.

“Finding the region where the ‘Black Beauty’ meteorite originates is critical because it contains the oldest Martian fragments ever found, aged at 4.48 billion years old, and it shows similarities between Mars’ very old crust, aged about 4.53 billion years old, and today’s Earth continents,” says Logan. “The region we identify as being the source of this unique Martian meteorite sample constitutes a true window into the earliest environment of the planets, including the Earth, which our planet lost because of plate tectonics and erosion.”

Fragment of the Black Beauty meteorite.
Fragment of the Black Beauty meteorite. (Credit: NASA)

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, offers never-before-known details about the Black Beauty, which is known scientifically as NWA 7034. It is the only brecciated Martian sample on Earth, meaning angular fragments of multiple rocks cemented together. All others contain single types.

A machine learning or AI (artificial intelligence) algorithm identified about 90 million impact craters. Black Beauty’s ejection site was found through analyzing thousands of high-resolution images from a range of Mars missions. Dr Lagain and colleagues say the Karratha crater was formed five to 10 billion years ago when an asteroid smashed into Mars. It propelled the chunk of ancient Martian crust into space which eventually crashed into the African desert. Remains of Black Beauty were discovered in the Western Sahara in 2011. It was made when the crusts of both Earth and Mars were still young.

Now that we know the source, researchers can compare the formation of both planets. The technology will identify the source of other Martian meteorites, and billions of impact craters on Mercury and the Moon. It paves the way to locate the ejection site of other Martian meteorites to assemble the most exhaustive view of the Red Planet’s geological history.

More than 300 Martian meteorites have been found on Earth to date.

Black Beauty graphic
Credit: Lagain et al, 2022, Nature Communications.

“We are also adapting the algorithm that was used to pinpoint Black Beauty’s point of ejection from Mars to unlock other secrets from the Moon and Mercury,” says co-author Gretchen Benedix, also from Curtin. “This will help to unravel their geological history and answer burning questions that will help future investigations of the Solar System such as the Artemis program to send humans on the Moon by the end of the decade or the BepiColombo mission, in orbit around Mercury in 2025.”

Black beauty is less than two inches long and weighs about 11 ounces. It is owned by a private collector – and valued at up to about $119,000.

Report by Mark Waghorn, South West News Service


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