In what could be a clue to evidence of life on Mars, the discovery of traces of opal gemstones on the surface of the Red Planet, has been reported by researchers at the University of Glasgow in a new study.
The opal was found in a 1.7-gram portion of the Martian meteorite called Nakhla, supplied by the Natural History Museum in London. The meteorite is named for the town in Egypt where it landed in 1911, millions of years after being thrown from the surface of Mars by a gigantic impact of unknown origin.
A scanning electron microscope in the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy was used to find the very small traces of the gem in the rock. The gem fragments, known on Earth as ‘fire opal’ for its brilliant orange, yellow and red colouration, was likely created by the interaction of Martian water with silica within the meteorite.
Lead author professor Martin Lee, of the University’s School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, said:
“The slice of Nakhla that we have is small, and the amount of fire opal we’ve found in it is even smaller, but our discovery of opal is significant for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, it definitively confirms findings from NASA’s imaging and exploration of the Martian surface which appeared to show deposits of opal. This is the first time that a piece of Mars here on Earth has been shown to contain opal.
Secondly, we know that on Earth opals like these are often formed in and around hot springs. Microbial life thrives in these conditions, and opal can trap and preserve these microbes for millions of years. If Martian microbes existed, it’s possible they too may be preserved in opal deposits on the surface of Mars.
Closer study of Martian opals by future missions to Mars could well help us learn more about the planet’s past and whether it once held life.”