"Most important meteorite in 100 years" gives Natural History Museum glimpse of life on Mars

By Culture24 Reporter | 08 February 2012
A photo of a woman handling a jagged silver meteorite with blue gloves
The Tissant rock has landed at London's Natural History Museum© NHM
A chunky meteorite which fell to earth in a shower of stones after witnesses reported two sonic booms and a fireball blazing above the sky in Morocco last year has been bought by the Natural History Museum. The “incredibly rare” piece is expected to yield revelations about Mars.

At more than 1kg in weight, the Tissant rock has become the largest exhibit in the museum’s 1,950-piece meteorite collection, bought from the Macovich Collection in New York City and the Falling Rocks Collection in Atlanta with the support of a private donor.

It is one of only four other Martian meteorite falls to have been witnessed – only 61 of the 41,000 meteorites scientists know about have come from Mars, with the last spotted in Nigeria 40 years ago.

“Arguably this is the most important meteorite to have fallen in 100 years,” says Dr Caroline Smith, the museum’s meteorite curator.

“Tissint fell in a dry area, was picked up soon after it fell and has absolutely minimal contamination. It is as if it has just been blasted off Mars.

“Martian meteorites are incredibly rare, and when they have been seen to fall and recovered quickly, like Tissint, they offer a unique insight into the Red Planet.”

Meteorites are susceptible to contamination from moisture or bacteria, depending upon how long they lie undiscovered. The choice condition of the Tissint offers investigators a change to conduct complex studies which are likely to prove more productive than robotic missions.

“The importance of this new acquisition cannot be overstated,” says Dr David Parker, Director of Science, Technology and Exploration from the UK Space Agency.

“The fact that the UK now holds the largest sample of the Tissint meteorite in any public collection in the world is a great opportunity for UK planetary researchers.”

Between 40,000 and 60,000 tonnes of “extraterrestrial material” is thought to hit Earth each year, including 1,000 meteorites ranging from the size of footballs to washing machines.

Although sightings of meteorite landings are extremely rare, witnesses often report meteors falling through the sky as shooting stars. Most falling debris comprises dust the size of sand grains.
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