APNewsBreak: Mars rocks fell in Africa last July

This handout photo provided by Darryl Pitt of the Macovich Collection shows an external …

Scientists are confirming a recent and rare invasion from Mars: meteorite chunks from the red planet that fell in Morocco last July.

This is only the fifth time scientists have confirmed chemically Martian meteorites that people witnessed as they fell. The fireball was spotted in the sky six months ago, but the rocks were not discovered on the ground in North Africa until the end of December.

This is an important and unique opportunity for scientists trying to learn about Mars’ potential for life. So far, no NASA or Russian spacecraft has returned bits of Mars, so the only Martian samples scientists can examine are those that come here in meteorite showers.

Scientists and collectors of meteorites are ecstatic, and already the rocks are fetching big money because they are among the rarest things on Earth, rarer even than gold.

A special committee of meteorite experts, including some NASA scientists, confirmed the test results Tuesday. They certified that 15 pounds (7 kilograms) of meteorite recently collected came from Mars. The biggest rock weighs more than 2 pounds (1 kilogram).

Astronomers think millions of years ago something big smashed into Mars and sent rocks hurtling through the solar system. After a long journey through space, one of those rocks plunged through Earth’s atmosphere, splitting into smaller pieces.

Most other Martian meteorite samples sat around on Earth for millions of years, or at the very least for decades, before they were discovered, which makes them tainted with Earth materials and life. These new rocks, while still probably contaminated because they have been on Earth for months, are purer.

The last time a Martian meteorite fell and was found fresh was in 1962. All the known Martian rocks on Earth add up to less than 240 pounds (110 kilograms).

The new samples were scooped up by dealers from those who found them. Even before the official certification, scientists at NASA, museums and universities scrambled to buy or trade these meteorites.

“It’s a free sample from Mars. That’s what these are, except you have to pay the dealers for it,” said University of Alberta meteorite expert Chris Herd, who heads the committee that certified the discovery.

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