Story at a glance

  • Scientists recently debunked an old theory that a meteorite from Mars in Antartica showed signs of life.
  • The rock fragment was found on the icy continent in 1984 and a NASA-led team of researchers suggested the piece had signs of life in 1996.
  • The new study suggests that the carbon-rich organic compounds on the rock were left from salt water passing over the fragment while it was still on Mars’ surface.

Scientists have debunked a decades-old theory related to a meteorite that was thought to show signs of Martian life.  

The meteorite labeled ALH84001 is held in the hand of a scientist at a Johnson Space Center lab in Houston, Aug. 7, 1996. Scientists say they've confirmed the meteorite from Mars contains no evidence of ancient Martian life. The rock caused a splash 25 years ago when a NASA-led team announced that its organic compounds may have been left by living creatures, however primitive. Researchers chipped away at that theory over the decades. A team of scientists led by Andrew Steele of the Carnegie Institution published their findings Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)


The 4-billion-year-old meteorite, dubbed Allan Hills 84001, landed in Antarctica in the 1980s. In 1996 a NASA-led team of researchers suggested the rock from the Red Planet contained organic compounds left by living organisms.  

But a team of scientists led by the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Andrew Steele said otherwise on Thursday, according to a study published in Science.  


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Steele’s team instead proposes the carbon-rich compounds found on the meteorite are the result of Martian water, most likely salt water, passing over the rock over a long period of time.  

Water was able to seep into the rock’s crevasses during Mars’ early wet years, Steele theorizes, before a major impact on the planet’s surface sent the piece blasting off into space and eventually to Earth.  

In an email to The Associated Press, Steele called his team’s findings “huge” for further understanding of how life started on Earth and potentially for helping scientists refine techniques needed to find life on Mars or Saturn or Jupiter’s moons, both of which have subsurface oceans.  

Two members of the 1996 research team took issue with Steele’s findings calling his conclusion on the rock fragment “disappointing.”  

“While the data presented incrementally adds to our knowledge of (the meteorite), the interpretation is hardly novel, nor is it supported by the research,” wrote Kathie Thomas-Keprta and Simon Clemett, astro material researchers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, according to the New York Post.  

“Unsupported speculation does nothing to resolve the conundrum surrounding the origin of organic matter.”  

Steele responded also in an email to the AP that the 1996 team’s findings were “a reasonable interpretation” for the time adding that the only way to really find out if there was life or is life on Mars is to examine samples brought back from the Red Planet.  


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Published on Jan 14, 2022