NOVEMBER 2, 1996


A group of British scientists has raised the stakes in the "life on Mars" debate, with their announcement that a second Martian meteorite contains a significant amount of organic material. Moreover, the meteorite in question -- designated EETA 79001 -- is a relatively young rock, an 8-kg chunk of volcanic basalt that oozed onto the Martian landscape about 180 million years ago. The meteorite was blasted off Mars about 500,000 years ago, spending most of the time since wandering in interplanetary space, and it was discovered in Antarctica in 1979.

Researchers Colin Pillinger, Ian Wright, and Monica Grady found that carbonate grains in EETA 79001 contain up to one part per 1,000 of organic material. They made the discovery by slowly heating the rock until the organic matter vaporized, at 300-700 Celsius, then analyzing the ratio of carbon isotopes in the escaping gas. Pillinger notes that his team first realized that meteorite was laced with organic matter seven years ago, but back then others argued that it had become contaminated after arriving on Earth. This time they used a portion of the stone protected by glassy minerals from outside contact.

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