A Martian meteorite from the dawn of the solar system 4.48 billion years ago – known as Black Beauty – could help to explain why there is life on Earth and not on Mars.
The meteorite offers an insight into what the surface of both Earth and Mars was like 4.5 billion years ago and it’s surprisingly like Iceland, the researchers say.
On Earth, the ancient surface has been lost due to plate tectonics – so Black Beauty, which hails from one of the oldest regions of Mars – could offer an insight into why Earth has evolved to support life and Mars has not.
Valerie Payré, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science at Northern Arizona University, said: "This meteorite recorded the first stage of the evolution of Mars and, by extension, of all terrestrial planets, including the Earth.
"As the Earth lost its old surface mainly due to plate tectonics, observing such settings in extremely ancient terrains on Mars is a rare window into the ancient Earth surface that we lost a long time ago."
The team, led by Anthony Lagain from Curtin University in Australia, searched for the location of origin of a martian meteorite (officially named NWA - Northwest Africa - 7034 for where it was found on Earth).
The meteorite’s chemistry shows that Mars once had volcanic activity similar to that found on Earth.
It recorded the first stage of Mars' evolution.
This team studied the chemical and physical properties of Black Beauty to pinpoint where it came from; they determined it was from Terra Cimmeria-Sirenum, one of the most ancient regions of Mars.
The team was able to isolate the most plausible ejection site – the Karratha crater that excavated ejecta of an older crater named Khujirt.
Anthony Lagain, from Curtin University in Australia, said: "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.
"This research paved the way to locate the ejection site of other Martian meteorites, in order to create the most exhaustive view of the Red Planet's geological history."
Payré studies the nature and formation of Mars' crust to determine if Earth and Mars share a common past that include both a continent-like and ocean-like crust.
She uses orbital observations captured in this region to investigate whether traces of volcanism similar to Iceland exist on Mars.
She says, ,"As of today, Mars' crust complexity is not understood, and knowing about the origin of these amazing ancient fragments could lead future rover and spatial missions to explore the Terra Sirenum-Cimmeria region that hides the truth of Mars' evolution, and perhaps the Earth's.
"This work paves the road to locate the ejection site of other martian meteorites that will provide the most exhaustive view of the geological history of Mars and will answer one of the most intriguing questions: why Mars, now dry and cold, evolved so differently from Earth, a flourishing planet for life?"
Watch: Meteorites from Mars go under the hammer