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New Meteorite Study Casts Doubt on Theory of Martian Life

From Associated Press

A chemical study casts fresh doubt on claims by NASA scientists that a rock from Mars contains evidence of life.

A California research team says that a mineral structure inside the meteorite was made by non-biological processes, and not by ancient bacteria as proposed by some researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

A space agency scientist, however, says that the research is flawed and does not prove that microbes never lived inside the rock known as Allen Hills 84001.

The study is published today in the journal Science.

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Mark Thiemens, a professor of chemistry at UC San Diego, said his team analyzed the chemical characteristics of oxygen found inside the rock and concluded that it was deposited there from the carbon dioxide and ozone of the Martian atmosphere.

Thiemens said that if the oxygen in the mineral structure had been deposited by a microbe or other life form, the chemical signature of the minerals would have matched that of oxygen in water, not oxygen in the atmosphere. Life, as it is now understood, depends on water and would leave a chemical residue of oxygen that was once in water.

He said the finding does not give final proof that the rock never contained life, but “it is a significant” argument against the NASA theory.

Everett Gibson, a NASA researcher at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and coauthor of the theory that Mars once held life, said that Thiemens and his team may not have tested the precise structures in the rock that the NASA scientists believe were formed by life.

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Traces of life found in the rock are visible only with powerful microscopes and are not easily measured, Gibson said.

He said the Thiemens group used a crushed sample from the Mars rock that may have included other minute bits of minerals that distorted the chemical findings.

Thiemens said that a new study is underway in which an even smaller specimen will be analyzed and the results of that, he said, “will give definitive evidence that is pretty close” to a final answer.

The rock has been identified as originating on Mars. It is believed that the rock was smashed into space when the red planet collided with an asteroid. The Mars rock is thought to have spent millions of years in orbit before falling to Earth several thousand years ago. It was found in an ice field called Allen Hills in Antarctica.

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Gibson and his colleagues analyzed the rock and concluded that some mineral structures, called carbonates, were evidence that the microbes lived in the rock before it was blasted away from Mars.

Their finding has been controversial since it was proposed in August 1996. Several other research teams have reported findings that tended to question the life theory. But Gibson said nothing has been found to conclusively disprove their interpretation of the biological origin of the carbonates.


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