Thursday, June 14, 2018

Want a Piece of Mars? It’ll cost you a billion dollars—or be free!

Anyone who wants a piece of Mars can imagine sending an automated spacecraft to land on Mars, grab a sample, and blast off for return to Earth.  No problem; just pay a billion dollars or so and you can have it!  Such a deal!  As they tell everyone in the bazaar in Istanbul, “Just for you!”
But asteroid and comet impacts on Mars happen from time to time, blasting fragments of Mars’ crust into orbit around the Sun.  Some of these fragments drift into Earth-crossing orbits; a few enter Earth’s atmosphere and a very lucky few survive entry heating to fall on the ground and be recovered as meteorites.  Most of them will never be recognized as meteorites, especially once their fusion crust weathers off.  A few decades ago we knew of only about two dozen such Martian meteorites, but since then we have reaped the benefits of meteorite searches in two locations where meteorites are so different from the local country rocks that they virtually stand up and say “look at me”!  One of these is the vast sand seas (ergs) of the Sahara Desert; another is the snowy wastes of Antarctica.  Rocks in either place are rare, and the overwhelming majority of them are meteorites.  In turn, the large majority of these Saharan and Antarctic meteorites are fragments of asteroids—but some are pieces of the Moon or Mars, and possibly other bodies as well.
To date some 200 meteorites found on Earth have been traced back to an origin on Mars.  Virtually all are members of three meteorite classes, shergottites, nakhlites, and chassignites, collectively called SNC meteorites.  They do not sample Mars’ surface either widely or democratically; they may indeed represent only three or four places on Mars where recent and unusually violent impacts occurred.  But they are real pieces of Mars, and they are vastly cheaper than a billion dollars!

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