Mars Rock Might Reveal Clues to Planet's Ancient History

PHOTO: Sawn surface of NWA 7533 showing both light and dark clasts in grey matrix.Luc Labenne
Sawn surface of NWA 7533 showing both light and dark clasts in grey matrix.

A meteorite estimated to be 4.4 billion years old may hold some of the clues to Mars' early history.

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The ancient rock was found in northwestern Africa and has been dubbed NWA 7533.

Munir Humayun, an associate professor of geological sciences at Florida State University, recently published some research showing that the meteorite can be dated back to 4.4 billion years ago. The research is published in the most recent issue of the journal Nature.

Harry McSween, a professor of planetary geology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, wrote an accompanying piece explaining the significance of the meteorite. "Most meteorites from Mars that have been officially recognized are relatively young, formed within the last quarter of Mars' history," he told ABC News. "This one is almost as old as Mars itself."

For the most part, the new research isn't making many claims about what the meteorite says about Mars' early history. "This is more like a discovery paper and people are going to be picking apart the meteorite's individual fragments to answer the question of what Mars was like early on," said McSween.

The deserts of North Africa turn out to be one of the best places to collect meteorites. "They're easy to find and they're well preserved," said McSween. "Every black rock you find is either a meteorite or a piece of camel dung."

But while North Africa is a literal hot bed for finding meteorites, they aren't usually handled with the utmost care.

"They're usually collected by nomads and sold to the highest bidder," said McSween. "If anyone touches a meteorite, it could already be contaminated with organic matter." NWA 7533 was bought in June of last year, in Agadir, Morocco.

It's for these reasons that McSween prefers the meteorites found in the cold deserts of Antarctica. "They're collected under pristine conditions," he said. "It pays to collect and curate them in as clean a manner as you can."