Housed in the National Museum of Natural History’s support center in Suitland, Maryland, are some 17,000 rocks belonging to the nation’s Antarctic meteorite collection. These rocks are more than just interesting artifacts; they may hold clues to answering some of the biggest mysteries of the earth’s history.
Each meteorite offers information about the formation of our solar system and the oldest rocks, called chondrites, outdate any other rocks present on the Earth.
Cari Corrigan, the Smithsonian geologist who oversees the collection, explained that studying these rocks allow scientists to understand what is happening at the center of the Earth since it is impossible to get actual samples from Earth’s core.
Every rock has its own story to tell, and the rarest of all are those that come from other bodies in our solar system, like the moon and Mars. “You can learn what the climate was like, the temperature, the history of the surface… all from one rock you can hold in your hand,” said Corrigan.
Generally speaking, meteorites are not difficult to find because they fall just about anywhere. But Antarctica is the perfect place to find samples to study because the flow of ice across the continent moves the rocks into piles and the cold, dry climate preserves the rocks.
One of the most stunning finds from Antarctica is the rock named Allan Hills 84001, found in 1984. The rock sat in the meteorite collection unnoticed for years until scientists recognized that it was from Mars and geologist Dave McKay spotted strange, wormlike structures buried in the rock that looked a lot like fossilized forms of tiny microbes.
After years of study and speculation surrounding the possible signs of life in ALH 84001, scientists eventually agreed that the odd forms were not fossilized Martians. However, the excitement surrounding the possibility of life on Mars led researchers to work together to figure out how organisms could live on the Red Planet.
NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor began mapping the planet and was soon followed by Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity, while on Earth biologists studied more and more organisms living in the most inhospitable regions of the planet.
The study sparked by ALH 84001 led to discoveries and research previously unimaginable, and many hope that other rocks in the collection may have the same effect on the scientific community. Corrigan explained that, “you can do a study and have it not necessarily be correct in the end… but you end up changing the face of science.”
Top photo by Doug Bowman CC BY 2.0
Lauren Leising is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.