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Scientists trace origins of rare Martian meteorite nicknamed “Black Beauty”

A small black rock, roughly triangle-shaped, with white flecks on its surface
NASA
The Black Beauty meteorite

A rare meteorite known as “Black Beauty” was blasted off the surface of Mars by an asteroid impact and landed in the Sahara Desert of North Africa. It’s the oldest known Martian meteorite, and also the first to be linked to the crater that created it. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with a member of the science team that traced Black Beauty’s origins. Valerie Payré is a former postdoctoral scholar at Northern Arizona University, now at the University of Iowa.

Most of us probably will never have a chance to touch a Martian meteorite. Describe what this rock looked like?

Well, this rock is really dark and black, that’s why it’s named Black Beauty… So, nothing really fancy when you’re looking at it just visually, but when you look at the chemistry and minerals that are in there, it’s really a special Martian meteorite.

What’s so special about this particular rock?

I think first, the thing that is really special about it is inside are fragments of other rocks that are the oldest fragments that we have from Mars. They are 4.48 billion years old, which is almost the age of the Earth. It’s telling us about Mars in really ancient times, almost when it formed, so really early in the history of Mars.

In this research, you were trying to figure out the actual crater that blew off this rock and sent it to Earth?

Yeah, exactly. When you are looking at Mars, it’s kind of like the Moon, there are craters everywhere. The team actually identified on Mars more than 94 million of craters. That’s a lot. A lot of various size. But not all of these craters are releasing rocks to space, because you need to have a certain velocity of the ejecta for them to be released to space…. And knowing the composition of the B lack Beauty meteorite, knowing all the magnetic anomalies that are we observing in the meteorite, we could pinpoint the actual crater from which it was ejected.

How does this kind of research help you understand the history of Mars and earth?

First finding the origin of the meteorite is something totally new, and so it’s exciting to know each Martian meteorite that we have; now we can know where it’s coming from…But this meteorite also has oldest fragments, so we can identify where on Mars we have these super ancient terrains that we can analyze more from the orbiters or from future missions that will go to Mars. And also having all these diversity of volcanic rocks inside the meteorite, it’s also telling us that in early Mars there was a lot of volcanism that was extremely diverse, perhaps like Earth, so analyzing this we could tell what happened on Earth too, in its past…. So that’s pretty cool too.

I know NASA’s been working for a long time on getting a sample return mission to bring some samples back from Mars, but the meteorites are, like, doing that already, for free.

Yeah, the meteorites are already some samples that we have from Mars, it’s just we don’t have precise context for them. But now, knowing where they’re coming from, that will be helpful. So that was a great approach and a great study for this.

Valerie, thanks so much for speaking with me.

Of course, a pleasure.

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Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.