The National Science Foundation has awarded grants for seven new projects to study Martian meteorite ALH84001 in greater depth. The grants are part of a coordinated program with NASA to further investigate possible traces of ancient life in the Martian rock.
After the announcement last August that the meteorite may harbor fossils of ancient Martian life, NSF and NASA called for further research into the evidence. The agencies set up a coordinated, interdisciplinary program which included joint review of research proposals. NASA announced on June 19 that it had awarded 16 individual grants under the program.
NSF's seven new grants, totaling nearly $800,000 for projects over two or three years, will use advanced instrumentation to further analyze the provocative rock. Some projects will study ALH84001 itself. Others will investigate analogous features in terrestrial rocks from environments that may resemble those of ancient Mars--hot springs and other extreme habitats of earthbound microbes--to provide a better context for understanding the tiny structures in the Martian rock.
Meteorite ALH84001 is one of about 8,000 meteorites collected in Antarctica by U.S. researchers. NSF is the lead agency for managing the collection and distribution of Antarctic meteorites, done in collaboration with NASA and the Smithsonian Institution. Samples of ALH84001 are being sent to the researchers from the Antarctic Meteorite Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. The samples, typically only a few grams apiece, are handled similarly to the lunar samples collected during the Apollo program.
The new research will include scanning the meteorite for extremely fine-scale alteration of the mineral interface by microbes. Other studies will focus on the meteorite's carbon isotopes to see if they reflect a ratio typical of microbial life, and develop a chemical method to fingerprint biological activity in meteorites using different isotopes of iron, some of which may be taken up preferentially by living organisms.
Still other projects will look at mineral particles--oxides and sulfides of iron--with potential as "biomarkers" (signs of past life) both in the Martian meteorite and in bacteria on Earth. Some researchers will attempt to: fix the temperature and fluid composition under which the meteorite's minerals formed, presently an area of controversy; develop thermodynamic models for mineral alteration in hydrothermal environments; and delineate the rock's temperature history and its past infiltration by fluids.
Institutions receiving the grants are the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, Iowa State University, Arizona State University, University of Minnesota, University of California-Santa Cruz, University of Hawaii, Washington University in St. Louis, and the California Institute of Technology.
Editors: For further details on the new grants, contact
Scott Borg, NSF polar earth sciences
program manager, at 703-306-1033,
or by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org