Widely publicized claims have been made that at least 30 meteorites from Mars have been found. With international coverage in 1996, a few scientists also proposed that one of these meteorites, named ALH84001, contained fossils of primitive life. Later study rejected that claim.
The wormy-looking shapes discovered in a meteorite [supposedly] from Mars turned out to be purely mineralogical and never were alive.
The 30 meteorites are presumed to have come from the same place, because they contain similar ratios of three types of oxygen: oxygen weighing 16, 17, and 18 atomic mass units. (That presumption is not necessarily true, is it?)
A chemical argument then indirectly links one of those meteorites to Mars, but the link is more tenuous than most realize. That single meteorite had tiny glass nodules containing dissolved gases. A few of these gases (basically the noble gases: argon, krypton, neon, and xenon) had the same relative abundances as those found in Mars’ atmosphere in 1976. (Actually, a later discovery shows that the mineralogy of these meteorites differs from that of almost all Martian rock.)
Besides, if two things are similar, it does not mean that one came from the other. Similarity in the relative abundances of the noble gases in Mars’ atmosphere and in one meteorite may be because those gases originated in Earth’s pre-subterranean chamber. Rocks and water from the subterranean chamber may have transported those gases to Mars.
Could those 30 meteorites have come from Mars? To escape the gravity of Mars requires a launch velocity of 3 miles per second. Additional velocity is then needed to transfer to an orbit intersecting Earth, 34–236 million miles away. Supposedly, one or more asteroids slammed into Mars and blasted off millions of meteoroids. Millions are needed, because less than one in a million97 would ever hit Earth, be large enough to survive reentry, be found, be turned over to scientists, and be analyzed in detail. Besides, if meteorites can come to Earth from Mars, many more should have come from the Moon—but haven’t. Furthermore, all the so-called Martian meteorites are magnetic,99 whereas Mars has no magnetic field.
For an impact to accelerate, in a fraction of a second, any solid from rest to a velocity of 3 miles per second requires such extreme shock pressures that much of the material would melt, if not vaporize. All 30 meteorites should at least show shock effects. Some do not. Also, Mars should have at least six giant craters if such powerful blasts occurred, because six different launch dates are needed to explain the six age groupings the meteorites fall into (based on evolutionary dating methods). Such craters are hard to find, and large, recent impacts on Mars should have been rare.
Then there are energy questions. Almost all impact energy is lost as shock waves and ultimately as heat. Little energy remains to lift rocks off Mars. Even with enough energy, the fragments must be large enough to pass through Mars’ atmosphere. To see the difficulty, imagine throwing a ball high into the air. Then visualize how hard it would be to throw a handful of dust that high. Atmospheric drag, even in Mars’ thin atmosphere, absorbs too much of the smaller particles’ kinetic energy. Finally, for large particles to escape Mars, the expelling forces must be focused, as occurs in a gun barrel or rocket nozzle. For best results, this should be aimed straight up, to minimize the path length through the atmosphere.
A desire to believe in life on Mars produced a type of “Martian mythology” that continues today. In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported seeing grooves on Mars. The Italian word for groove is “canali”; therefore, many of us grew up hearing about “canals” on Mars—a mistranslation. Because canals are man-made structures, people started thinking about “little green men” on Mars.
In 1894, Percival Lowell, a wealthy, amateur astronomer with a vivid imagination, built Lowell Observatory primarily to study Mars. Lowell published a map showing and naming Martian canals, and wrote several books: Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908). Even into the 1960s, textbooks displayed his map, described vegetative cycles on Mars, and explained how Martians may use canals to convey water from the polar ice caps to their parched cities. Few scientists publicly disagreed with the myth, even after 1949 when excellent pictures from the 200-inch telescope on Mount Palomar were available. Those of us in school before 1960 were directly influenced by such myths; almost everyone has been indirectly influenced.
Artists, science fiction writers, and Hollywood helped fuel this “Martian mania.” In 1898, H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds telling of strange-looking Martians invading Earth. In 1938, Orson Welles, in a famous radio broadcast, panicked many Americans into thinking New Jersey was being invaded by Martians. In 1975, two Viking spacecraft were sent to Mars to look for life. Carl Sagan announced, shortly before the tests were completed, that he was certain life would be discovered—a reasonable conclusion, if life evolved. The prediction failed. In 1996, United States President Clinton read to a global television audience, “More than 4 billion years ago this piece of rock [ALH84001] was formed as a part of the originalof Mars. After billions of years, it broke from the surface and began a 16-million-year journey through space that would end here on Earth.” “… broke from the surface …”?
The myth is still alive.