The Antarctic meteorite that revolutionized our understanding of life in the universe
It took a long time to get from the red planet to the freezing plains. Then, some 13,000 years ago, a piece of that wreckage landed near a Y-shaped ridge in the Transantarctic Mountains known as Allan Hills. Nowhere else on the planet has provided a bounty of otherworldly riches like the desolate, frozen plains of the Antarctic. The potato-size chunk, dubbed ALH84001, had rested on the ridge’s surface untouched for millennia until it was finally discovered by Roberta Score, a member of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (Ansmet), on Dec. “The major legacy of that rock is that it basically drives a huge amount of what is happening in planetary science,” says Gretchen Benedix, an astrogeologist at Curtin University in Western Australia.
The rock sparked a revolution in astrobiology — the hunt for life outside of Earth — that is still felt today as NASA’s Perseverance rover rolls around the surface of Mars. The first tentative answers came when scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center cracked open the rock from Antarctica in 1996. Cracking open ALH84001 is like opening a portal to a planet more than 140 million miles away. His team of scientists at Johnson went to work examining ALH84001’s chemical components in the early ’90s, hoping to reveal what was happening on the red planet 4 billion years ago. Days before McKay’s team published its work in the journal Science, US President Bill Clinton fronted a media throng on the South Lawn at the White House, revealing this world-changing hypothesis.
At the time, Everett Gibson, a planetary scientist at JSC and co-author of the paper, said the team was “putting this evidence out to the scientific community for other investigators to verify, enhance, attack — disprove if they can — as part of the scientific process. Antarctic hunts Ralph Harvey was making the 1,200-mile journey from Houston to his mother’s house in Wisconsin just as Clinton announced the discovery of potential Martian life in ALH84001 in 1996. The pair’s conclusions hadn’t garnered a lot of interest from the press, but by the time Harvey reached his parent’s house, his mother told him the phone had been ringing off the hook.
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