NAKHLA

Martian Nakhlite
Clinopyroxenite

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click on photos for a magnified view

Fell June 28, 1911
31° 19' N., 30° 21' E.

In the village of El Nakhla el Baharia in the Nile Delta of Egypt, at 9:00 in the morning, numerous stones having a combined weight of ~10 kg fell over an area of 4.5 km. The friable stones varied in weight from 20 g to 1813 g, and most had complete or partial glossy-black fusion crust covering the greenish-gray crystalline interior. The minimum pre-atmospheric diameter of the meteoroid was calculated to have been 44 cm, and its low mass ablation is consistent with a very high entry angle close to verticle.

The green cumulate crystals found in Nakhla are composed largely of the high-Ca clinopyroxene augite (76–85 vol%) with lesser amounts of Fe-rich olivine (1.98–19.62 vol%), together with plagioclase, K-feldspar (~1%), Fe-Ti oxides, pyrrhotite ± chalcopyrite, pyrite, gypsum, a reddish-brown aqueous alteration phase similar to iddingsite (consisting of smectite clays, ferrihydrides, and iron oxides), and a halite–siderite–anhydrite–chlorapatite assemblage derived from evaporite deposits and incorporated into silicate melt.

A halite–clay assemblage was identified in Nakhla that was probably formed by percolating fluids within an interconnected matrix of cracks (Rost et al., 2005; Needham et al., 2011). The water-soluble ions of Cl, K, Na, S, C, Ca, and some others that are found within Nakhla match those that would be expected to precipitate through the low-temperature evaporation of an acidic brine. 3D imaging of Nakhla has revealed a network of highly interconnected fluid pathways that pervade silicates and the mesostasis, which has resulted in a homogeneous distribution of secondary minerals including carbonates, sulfates, and halite. The sulfate and halite secondary minerals identified appear to have formed contemporaneously in later metasomatic episodes (Needham et al., 2013). Cartwright et al. (2013) analyzed several nakhlites, including Nakhla, for halogen abundances, and found a potential Cl-rich, trapped fluid component with Ar-isotopic ratios matching those of the martian atmosphere, likely reflecting shock-implanted atmospheric Ar. This component also incorporates other halogens with abundance ratios that are consistent with evaporation of surface brines, and may represent metasomatic fluid that circulated through the nakhlite cumulate pile. The finding of Cl-scapolite (marialite) in a melt inclusion in Nakhla is thought to reflect precipitation from a Cl-rich brine at temperatures of 700–850°C at 1 bar during hydrothermal activity, or possibly from a Cl-rich magma during late-stage igneous activity (Filiberto et al., 2014)

At the center of olivine fractures in all nakhlites are secondary mineral assemblages in such forms as siderite, clay-like phases, and an amorphous hydrated Fe–Mg–Al silicate gel formed as a late brine product through the precipitation of a smectite-like material, identified as saponite by X-ray Absorption Spectroscopy (Hicks et al., 2012). This gel is cross-cut by veins of Cl-rich alteration material produced by the injection of a cold saline fluid (Changela and Bridges, 2010; Tomkinson et al., 2011).

A scenario was proposed by Lee et al. (2013) in which shock deformation of Nakhla occurred ~913 m.y. ago, producing planar fractures and dislocations in silicate grains. These fractures permitted aqueous solutions that flowed ~280 m.y. later to infiltrate the near-surface rock, leading to the preferential etching and dissolution of olivine grains (compared to mesostasis and augite) over a short time period spanning a few days to a few years. Secondary mineralization involving these dissolved cations occurred within the now enlarged pore spaces, crystallizing in the sequence carbonate ⇒ Fe,Mg-silicate ⇒ sulfate. The initial carbonate-rich solution is thought to have caused much of the etching, while the hydrous Fe,Mg-silicate phase eventually filled the pore spaces. The Fe,Mg-silicate was formed in low temperature, low water:rock conditions and initially was manifest as a gel phase, but was subsequently transformed into nanocrystalline smectite following the loss of water through evaporation/desiccation processes. Thereafter, resumed infiltration of aqueous solutions into desiccation-induced fractures resulted in the formation of a second-generation mineral believed to be the phyllosilicate serpentine, which is sometimes intergrown with, and cross-cuts the original smectite veins; the formation of gypsum occurred during the final stages of crystallization.

These alteration assemblages were produced in the highest abundances at the bottom of the nakhlite cumulate pile as a result of impact-induced heating (100 m deep within a crater 1–10 km in size), melting of CO2-bearing permafrost, rapid progressive cooling, and oxidation. Thereafter, upward percolation of this pH neutral, ≤150°C hydrothermal fluid through fractures, which lasted a short 1–10 months after the impact, led to fractionation of the secondary mineral assemblages (Changela and Bridges, 2011). This fractionation is revealed in the variation of Mg# and Fe+Si abundances of the gel phase within the sequence of nakhlites as the fluid migrated upward and eventually evaporated from the surface, forming soluble salts such as gypsum and halite. A few olivine grains show evidence of a fluid etching process that occurred over a brief time period measured in days to a few years, depending on the fluid pH and temperature. These faceted, µm-scale etch pits are filled with secondary minerals in the form of amorphous gel or nanocrystalline smectite, produced through chemical reactions sustained by the dissolution of the silicates (Tomkinson et al., 2011, 2013).

The nakhlite Lafayette has an Ar–Ar age for mesostasis that is 200–300 m.y. younger than that for the whole rock, indicating that it was affected by an extended, secondary thermal event (Korochantseva et al., 2010). Lafayette, which was situated near the bottom of the nakhlite cumulate pile, experienced the highest hydrothermal alteration. It contains the typical amorphous gel along with three textural types of phyllosilicate, each composed primarily of smectite and serpentine (Changela and Bridges, 2010). The formation age of the phyllosilicate component has been measured at ~600 m.y., while other components give an age of >1,000 m.y. (Charlier et al., 2011).

Interestingly, Mn carbonates were also precipitated during brine evaporation, a process which on Earth, and perhaps on Mars, is microbially mediated (Bailey et al., 2003). A new weathering product was recently discovered within olivine melt inclusions in Nakhla (Rost et al., 2003). It is a brown microcrystalline phase, thought to be associated with precursor amphibole. Water contained within hydrous minerals accounts for over 0.11 wt% of Nakhla. Based on these findings, it is a reasonable assumption that Nakhla resided in a locale such as a crater that enclosed a hydrothermal liquid formed by impact-induced melting of subsurface ice.

In addition to Nakhla, seven other nakhlites have been discovered—Lafayette, Governador Valadares, NWA 817, Y-000593/749/802, NWA 998, MIL 03346/090030/090032/090136, and NWA 5790/6148. Most of these nakhlites have undergone detailed analyses which indicate that they all share similar mineralogies and petrologies, as well as crystallization and cosmic-ray exposure ages (~1.4 b.y. and ~10.5 m.y., respectively) (Misawa et al., 2003; Park et al., 2008). Correction of the Ar–Ar crystallization age of Nakhla and NWA 998 was accomplished by Cartwright et al. (2010) by accounting for a trapped component of 40Ar. The resulting ages are consistent with the ages determined from other chronometers. In addition, aqueous alteration products from Y-000593 and Lafayette have similar Rb–Sr ages of ~650 m.y. These age correlations infer that the many nakhlites are probably all source-crater paired.

Ar–Ar systematics for Nakhla indicate that a localized shock event occurred 913 (± 9.0) m.y. ago (Cassata et al., 2010). Evidence for such a localized shock event is found in the extensively fractured pyroxene along with shock melt veins consistent with pressures of 20–40 GPa, and at the same time, shock features in plagioclase that are consistent with pressures of 15–20 GPa. Models constructed for the time period following this shock event, temperatures for the Nakhla rock was either ~120°C for 10 m.y. residing under an ejecta blanket, or ~355°C for several days residing near the surface. Temperatures following the ejection from Mars ~9 m.y. ago were ~110°C or ~330°C, corresponding to a duration of 10 m.y. and several days, respectively.

Despite their similarities, some important compositional differences do exist among the nakhlites. For example, a pre-terrestrial, reddish alteration product present in NWA 817 has been identified as a water-bearing ferromagnesian phyllosilicate of the smectite group, different from the iddingsite-like alteration phase present in Nakhla (Gillet et al., 2002). Multiple lines of evidence suggest that this smectite-like alteration product formed by the percolation of a sequestered, mantle-derived, aqueous fluid through crustal rock. This hypothesis is supported by the unfractionated H-isotope value (very low D/H ratio) of the alteration phase, which suggests that the alteration fluid had not been equilibrated with the martian atmosphere, in contrast to the water from other nakhlites. The enrichment of Fe and LREE in the alteration phase of NWA 817 is attributed to the infiltration of the alteration fluid through the local pre-existing rock structure, incorporating a dissolved plagioclase component. Notably, the NWA 5790/6148 nakhlite contains the highest Th, U and REE concentrations reported thus far in the group, exhibiting a strong LREE enrichment. This suggests that cumulate minerals in NWA 5790/6148 were derived from a more evolved parent melt.

Also of interest is the fact that the augite component in NWA 5790/6148 crystallized from a compositionally distinct melt source than that from which the olivine and mesostasis were derived (Sautter et al., 2002). The mesostasis in NWA 5790/6148 is present in the highest proportion (39.7%), while the MIL pairing group (the most highly oxidized nakhlite, exhibiting the lowest degree of equilibration) and NWA 817, both previously considered to have formed near the top of the pile, contain the next highest proportion of mesostasis (e.g., 23.7% in the MIL pairing group). Lesser mesostasis abundances are present in other nakhlites, representing a descending sequence from the top (e.g., 10% in Nakhla and Y-000593). Northwest Africa 817 contains an Fe-rich feldspar component indicative of rapid crystallization following undercooling conditions. The MIL pairing group contains the lowest abundance of olivine, and has pyroxenes that are strongly zoned with hedenbergite. For many other features, e.g., highly zoned olivines (Fa59–86 in NWA 817; Fa56–91 in MIL), olivine alteration products, and skeletal Ti-magnetite in the mesostasis, NWA 817 and the MIL pairing group show very close similarities. Northwest Africa 5790/6148 appears to have many close similarities as well, consistent with rapid cooling near the top of the cumulate pile, although some important differences have been identified.

Sulfide phases present in the nakhlites consist primarily of pyrrhotite ± chalcopyrite, along with rare pentlandite, and are thought to have precipitated from the parent melt in association with Fe–Ti-oxide grains (Chevrier et al., 2011). The sulfides were concentrated at the bottom of the lava flow where the cooling rate was the slowest, and became assimilated there. This resulted in sulfide abundances of 530 (±160) ppm in NWA 998 located at the bottom, 210 (±70) ppm in Nakhla located near the middle, and 80 (±25) ppm in NWA 817 located at the top. The sulfides assimilated a component of S-bearing regolith and/or hydrothermal fluids during the late magmatic stage during low-temperature conditions. The sulfide grain size varies with the crystallization location within the conjectured common lava flow.

It is notable that the MIL pairing group contains melt inclusions within clinopyroxene with a trapped chlorine-rich fluid, along with its reaction product potassic-chlorohastingsite (McCubbin et al., 2009). Successive oxidation of this fluid and its reaction with pyrrhotite led to acidification and subsequent formation of jarosite and hematite upon cooling below ~200°C. Unlike Nakhla, the MIL pairing group did not experience significant shock disturbance since its crystallization. Fracture-free (type Ia) melt inclusions trapped within cumulus augite cores may record the Nakhla primary magma composition (Sautter et al., 2012).

Preliminary mineralogical analysis of NWA 998 indicates that it is an unusual, orthopyroxene-bearing nakhlite, which was permeated by deuterium-rich fluids on Mars. The three paired nakhlites from Antarctica, Y-000593/749/802, have a combined weight of ~15 kg, which constitutes the largest nakhlite found to date. The composition of the mesostasis in the Y-000593 pairing group suggests a faster cooling rate than that of Nakhla, GV, and Lafayette, but slightly slower than that of NWA 817.

The fact that NWA 5790/6148 is the sole member of the nakhlite group that has retained complex primary zoning features on augite grains, indicates that it cooled rapidly consistent with formation at or near the top of the cumulate pile. Further evidence for rapid cooling at a near-surface location can be seen in the Cl contamination previously observed in the MIL pairing group, in the high proportion of evolved mesostasis in these rocks, and in the lack of equilibrium among their mineral phases. Based on many petrologic factors, including mesostasis (REE) abundance, plagioclase size, olivine Fa composition, intercumulus porosity, closure temperature, oxygen fugacity, pyroxene composition (Mg#), Fe–Mg and Ca-zoning profiles in olivine and pyroxene, Al-content in pyroxene cores (see diagram below), crystal size distribution analysis, and volatile history (F, Cl, H2O), a comparative burial depth within the ~100 m cumulate pile (both magma chamber and lava flow) for each of the nakhlites and the two chassignites has been proposed as follows (Mikouchi et al., 2003, 2005, 2006; Lentz and McSween, 2003; Macrì et al., 2004; Imae et al., 2005; Day et al., 2006; McKay et al., 2006; Treiman and Irving, 2008; Jambon et al., 2010; Szymanski et al., 2010; Mikouchi et al., 2012; McCubbin et al., 2013; Corrigan et al., 2014; Mikouchi et al., 2014):

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Diagram shown courtesy of McKay et al., LPSC 37, #2435

A study which proposes a different stratigraphic ordering of the nakhlites has been published by Grady et al. (2007). Without regard to the later recovery of the nakhlite NWA 5790/6148, they argued that although the MIL pairing group contains the least equilibrated olivine cores and has experienced the most rapid cooling of all the known nakhlites, both factors which are consistent with a shallow emplacement, it also contains the lowest abundance of carbonates with intermediate 13C isotopic composition—factors more consistent with minimal aqueous alteration at greater depth. Therefore, they envisage the MIL pairing group as forming at the lowest zone of the flow and experiencing cooling by circulating groundwater derived from melted ices. The source of the isotopically-light carbonates is considered to be from this groundwater.

From cooling rate studies of the nakhlites conducted by Mikouchi et al. (2012), utilizing Fe–Mg and Ca zoning of olivine along with secondary mineralogy, they determined the burial depths of the suite of nakhlites. Although the exact burial depth among NWA 5790/6148, MIL 03346 and pairings, and NWA 817 could not be resolved, they calculated that they were all emplaced within 2 m of the surface. Notably, NWA 5790/6148 exhibits some important differences compared to the other nakhlites. It exhibits sector-like zoning in Al, Ti, and Cr within augite that is more similar to that in Nakhla and Y-000593/749/802 rather than NWA 817 and the MIL pairing group. For these mineralogical reasons, NWA 5790/6148 is considered to have been derived from a more evolved portion of a common flow, or possibly from a separate flow.

Utilizing advanced investigative and modeling techniques to study the thermal history of MIL 03346, Domeneghettia et al. (2013) calculated the closure temperature for augite crystals to be 500 (±100) °C. This temperature corresponds to a relatively slow cooling rate at a depth of 85 m. However, these new calculations are contrary to the generally accepted theory that MIL 03346 cooled rapidly <2 m (or 4 m; Mikouchi et al., 2014) from the top of the nakhlite cumulate pile. Accordingly, the team proposed a scenario that would be consistent with the thermal history they have established for this nakhlite: MIL 03346 initially cooled to ~500°C at or near the surface, at which point it became insulated by a subsequent eruption of lava. This later blanketing flow could be represented by the nakhlites NWA 817, NWA 5790/6148, and/or the possibly nakhlite-related augite basalt NWA 8159. Research indicates that these meteorites derived from the top of the cumulate pile (or lava flow), based in part on their quenched textures and highly-oxidized state (Agee et al., 2014). The augite basalt is considered by some to possibly represent an extruded, evolved intercumulus melt displaced from below, containing a low abundance of xenocrystic olivines spalled from the walls of the nakhlite magma chamber (Herd et al., 2014).

In a contrasting view, Lentz et al (2005) found a lack of correlation between the olivine texture/distribution and the stratigraphic order, but instead, proposed that the olivine texture/distribution is related to formation in different lava flows of variable composition. Excluding the later found NWA 5790/6148, they suggested that at least two flows generated the various nakhlites—one which produced NWA 817, Nakhla, and Governador Valadares, and another which produced Y-000593/749/802, Lafayette, and NWA 998. A third flow may have generated the MIL pairing group. To account for the postulated gabbroic layer, which should have overlain the nakhlite unit and slowed its rapid cooling rate, they proposed that these rapidly cooled nakhlites were extruded later in evolved lava flows, but before plagioclase formation began.

There are several competing scenarios to explain the formation of nakhlites. Some scenarios places their origin in a plutonic environment, while others place it close to the surface in a thick lava flow or shallow intrusion. Following are details of four of the major competing scenarios consistent with most nakhlites.

Scenario 1

  1. the petrogenesis of Nakhla began with the formation of pyroxene-rich cumulates during an early Mars differentiation episode ~4.56 b.y. ago.
  2. a late magmatic event ~1.4 b.y. ago resulted in the partial melting of the cumulate mantle.
  3. an Fe-poor pyroxene crystal mush was intruded by Fe-rich olivine phenocrysts or xenocrysts (Sautter et al., 2012); rapid cooling prevented the exsolution of Ca-poor pyroxene.
  4. intercumulus melt inclusions were entrapped within olivine and augite crystals; this basaltic melt was rich in Fe and Ca, poor in Al and Ti, enriched in K relative to Na, and similar to alkaline basalts on Earth and martian rocks analyzed by the Spirit rover in Gusev crater.
  5. the rapid growth of augite and olivine was followed by a period of slow cooling, gravitational settling, and equilibration within a plutonic environment, forming a cumulus-textured solid.
  6. continued percolation of highly oxidizing, intercumulus magma resulted in late-magmatic re-equilibration.
  7. a final slow cooling phase resulted in the formation of exsolution features; this final solidification possibly occurred nearer to the surface, perhaps in a lava flow or sill.
  8. infiltration of liquid water produced iddingsite.

Scenario 2 (Imae et al., 2005)

  1. accumulation of phenocrysts of the Fe-poor pyroxene augite occurred in a plutonic environment at depths commensurate with pressures of at least 3.0 GPa under high temperature, oxidizing, slow-cooling conditions.
  2. lesser amounts of olivine phenocrysts (~74% of these being of cumulate origin, the remainder having crystallized from the intercumulus melt) or xenocrysts, along with cumulate titanomagnetite micro-phenocrysts were formed.
  3. magmatic inclusions were trapped within both augite and olivine phenocryst cores; symplectites possibly formed at this time.
  4. entrainment and intrusion of the cumulate material to the surface produced a thick lava flow or sill.
  5. under rapid cooling conditions, plagioclase and other accessory minerals crystallized from intercumulus melt to form the mesostasis and the inner rims on augite phenocrysts.
  6. Ca-depleted pyroxene then nucleated within the mesostasis, and also formed the outer rim on augite phenocrysts.
  7. a late-stage, slow cooling phase set up the following formation sequence: 1) augite—magnetite aggregates, 2) symplectic intergrowths at olivine—augite boundaries, and 3) the formation of exsolution features in olivine cores.
  8. infiltration of liquid water produced iddingsite.

Scenario 3

This scenario utilizes the 2.7 b.y. old, differentiated surface lava flow in Ontario, Canada, known as Theo's Flow, as an analog for the nakhlites. In particular, the differentiated, 60 m thick pyroxenite layer is so similar to the nakhlites that it has been proposed they share the same formation processes.
  1. a very mafic magma flow or intrusion tens of meters thick began to pool.
  2. pyroxene nucleation began in a cooler zone underneath a quenched crustal layer and began to link into clusters.
  3. these pyroxene clusters sank through the low-viscosity magma only to be carried back up in convection currents.
  4. during the few days the pyroxene clusters were in this convective cycle, each cycle lasting for a few hours, they grew larger each time they reached the cooler nucleation zone.
  5. when the clusters became too heavy for convective forces, they settled out onto the cumulus pile below where the grains developed a preferred orientation.
  6. finally, plagioclase crystallized from trapped low-Al melt, along with a possible unsampled gabbroic layer.
  7. infiltration of liquid water produced iddingsite.

Scenario 4

Perhaps the most plausible scenario for the petrogenesis and comagmatic origin of both the chassignites and nakhlites has been put forth by McCubbin et al. (2013), based in large part on advanced analytical techniques used to investigate the volatile-bearing minerals present in these two groups.
  1. a very mafic, depleted partial melt intruded into the near-surface crust.
  2. olivine and chromite were the first cumulus minerals to crystallize within this chamber, composing the most slowly cooled, lowest stratigraphic horizon to become the dunitic chassignites.
  3. as cooling proceeded, an exogenous Cl-rich, LREE-enriched fluid infiltrated the chamber leaving the magma enriched in Cl and LREE, and depleted in water.
  4. the next horizon to crystallize is presumed to have a composition of olivine and pigeonite, but a representative sample has not yet been found.
  5. after the stratographic unit represented by NWA 998 was accumulated, the magma reached the point of Cl saturation; a low-density, Cl-rich fluid was exsolved/degassed and migrated upwards, initiating an eruptive phase.
  6. this escaping Cl-rich fluid removed proportionately more Fe2+ than Fe3+, thereby increasing the oxygen state in the later-crystallizing upper horizons.
  7. as clinopyroxene and olivine crystallization continued, and Lafayette, Governador Valadares, Nakhla, and the Yamato pairing group formed next in the sequence, the Cl-rich liquid became trapped as inclusions, subsequently forming apatite and amphibole.
  8. sequential crystallization of the upper horizons—NWA 817, MIL pairing group, and NWA 5790/6148—likely occurred after eruption onto the surface resulting in rapid cooling.
  9. following crystallization of the cumulate pile and lava flow, alteration by low-temperature aqueous fluids produced secondary mineral phases such as iddingsite.

Nakhla was subsequently ejected from Mars along with the other nakhlites and chassignites ~10.8 (±0.8) m.y. ago from a crater over 100 km wide. The two known olivine-rich chassignites, with their similar crystallization age of ~1.3 b.y. and similar cosmic ray exposure age of ~10.5 (±1.6) m.y., were likely ejected during this same impact event. The nakhlites were only weakly shocked during their ejection, and experienced estimated peak pressures of 14–20 GPa, among the lowest of the martian suite. Fritz et al. (2005) revealed that a correlation exists between the Mars-to-Earth transfer time and the shock stage of the material; i.e., fragments having a higher degree of shock also have a faster transit to an Earth-crossing orbit and vice versa. Therefore, the absence in our collections of highly shocked nakhlites may be reconciled by consideration of their short lifetimes on Earth (less than ~1 m.y.).

A legend has been perpetuated in the meteorite community since the Nakhla meteorite fall regarding the death of a dog that was hit by one of the falling stones, as interpreted from the following statement about the event first reported in the Arabic Newspaper "El Ahali": "One of them [fragments] fell on a dog at Denshal, leaving it like ashes in the moment." A current English interpretation of this statement can be made considering the literary style at the time of the fall in the early 20th century. A commonly used expression of that period, "of little moment", had the meaning of something inconsequential, while the similar expression "like ashes in the moment" can likewise mean something without consequence, unimportant. Therefore, the writer's statement can be interpreted to mean that a meteorite fragment fell on ("on" meaning in the vicinity of, as with a cannonball bombardment on a fort) a dog, which then [walking away indifferently] left it ("it" meaning the fallen stone, not the dog) without consequence, considering it to be of no importance. The image of a carefree dog oblivious to the imminent danger of falling rocks would have been notable.

On a further note, the account given can be challenged based on several other salient points. The fall took place June 28, not on the 29th as stated in the report. Moreover, the reported village of Denshal is actually about 33 km southeast of the 5 km-long meteorite strewn field in El Nakhla el Baharia, an inordinately long distance away for a fragment from this meteorite of minimal pre-atmospheric size to have fallen. Denshal probably experienced sonic booms, but no other witnesses were reported to have observed a meteor or any meteorites from the Denshal area. Then, too, the main evidence, a dead dog, was never produced. Lacking any compelling evidence to the contrary, it may be presumed that this story of a meteorite-killed dog is apocryphal, and can itself be laid to rest.

The International Quarterly, Meteorite!, published a two-part article in 1998, Vol. 4, Nos. 2 and 3, in which Kevin Kichinka presents an exhaustive review of the record concerning many aspects of the Nakhla meteorite. By permission, his article is presented here in its entirety.

Recently, SEM and light microscope images were taken from interior chips of a previously intact, 640.8 g, 100% fusion-crusted individual donated by the British Museum. The mass was divided under sterile conditions at NASA–JSC, Houston, with about half of this distributed to 37 groups of investigators. Images taken by the team of Dr. David McKay reveal a network of cracks and veins filled with a brownish, low-temperature alteration product similar to smectite, which is thought to have formed no earlier than ~650 m.y. ago. Embedded within this phase is an iron-rich band with µm-sized, rounded particles that are theorized to be the mineralized products of bacteria similar to those of terrestrial iron-reducing bacteria. The images below show these possible fossilized martian biomorphs embedded in 700 m.y. old clay minerals within Nakhla (courtesy NASA–JSC):

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Evidence supporting this claim of fossilized Martian microbes includes the following:

However, in another study (PNAS 1999, vol. 96), researchers suggest that the amino acids detected in Nakhla have a D/L ratio similar to that found in association with terrestrial bacterial activity, carrying a fingerprint matching that of Nile River Delta sediments. New samples of Nakhla constituting a depth profile were analyzed utilizing ToF-SIMS, SEM, EDX, and culturing techniques (Toporski et al., 2000; Toporski and Steele, 2004). They revealed a significant degree of microbial contamination in all samples studied, including the presence of spores and hyphae from several filamentous bacterial and fungal species. Identification of these various species using genetic techniques such as PCR amplification of DNA is ongoing. The implication of rapid terrestrial contamination may have repercussions for future Mars sampling missions.

In a more recent analysis of a well-preserved Nakhla stone, a new optically dark, carbon-rich component, lacking a terrestrial isotopic signature, was discovered filling fractures (Gibson et al., 2006; McKay et al., 2006). This carbonaceous component is associated with the low-temperature, secondary aqueous alteration product iddingsite, and it occurs in several forms (sub-µm- to µm-sized) including vein fillings, dendritic tubes connected to veins or intermingled with the host silicate within cavities, as tiny blebs, and interspersed among halite and gypsum crystals. An isotopic analysis has been conducted on this reduced, C-bearing phase, and the composition was identified as 13C from an extraterrestrial source.

One µm-sized carbonaceous structure was found that is not related to graphite or carbonate, but is similar to kerogen (McKay et al., 2011). This is an organic structure associated with both halite and the iddingsite matrix. Further studies of Nakhla (McKay et al., 2011) revealed both an acid-labile organic component and a macromolecular, acid-insoluble organic component, the latter consisting of aromatic and alkyl-aromatic groups with ether linkages. The meteorite is still under study to distinguish the source of these organic phases from among the likely candidates: delivery through impact of a carbonaceous impactor, or as a product of biogenic activity. It is proposed that some of the mineral corrosion that is observed is the result of microbe-produced organic acids. Furthermore, McKay et al. (2010) have identified carbonates and what appears to be indigenous biomorphs embedded and intergrown with iddingsite in closely studied nakhlites.

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Nakhla biomorph embedded in a substrate of iddingsite, both of which formed at the same time on Mars.
Interpreted by the authors as a relict martian microbe.
Proc. of SPIE Vol. 7441
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Biomorphs from Nakhla, Y-000593, and Columbia River Basalt, consisting of coccoidal forms embedded in iddingsite.
Proc. of SPIE Vol. 7441

In a related study of a well preserved Nakhla specimen, conducted at Oregon State University (Fisk et al., 2006), tunnels measuring ~10 µm long were discovered, comparable to tracks formed within terrestrial igneous rocks and basaltic glasses from extreme environments by ~1 µm-sized iron-trophic bacteria. They also found elemental associations similar to some terrestrial microfossils. Their findings have raised the possibility that martian bacteria were extant 600 m.y. ago during a period when Nakhla was exposed to an aqueous environment.

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Tunnels are resolved within fractures in a Nakhla sample (in boxes).
Photo courtesy of Oregon State University

Nasa's astrobiology group examined pristine Nakhla samples and other nakhlites with scanning electron microscopy techniques and have identified additional potential martian biogenic fossil evidence (Spaceflight Now; C. Covault, 2010). Dating of these features show that they were formed during a warmer and wetter period on Mars 1.4 b.y. ago. These features are virtually identical to features found in the nakhlite Y-000593 and the martian orthopyroxenite ALH 84001, as well as to micro-fossils found in some terrestrial basalts. Use of more advanced analytical techniques, including an ion microprobe with spectrographic analysis capability, will be utilized in future studies to better resolve these micro-fossils. The three NASA photos shown below demonstrate what is believed by some to be the remnants of ancient martian bacterial mats and other biological signatures:
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An intriguing reddish-orange-colored ovoid structure has been identified in a Nakhla thin section investigated by Chatzitheodoridis et al. (2013, 2014). The ovoid is situated within mesostasis material between two pyroxene crystals, and it is made obvious through advanced imaging techniques that the structure originated on Mars. The ovoid consists of a concentrically zoned wall consisting of a crystalline, Fe-rich saponite clay, enclosing a hollow volume containing two "island" features. Although it was initially seen to resemble a biomorphic structure, an in-depth investigation has now determined that the ovoid was most likely formed through abiotic processes; e.g., partial space-filling of a vesicle.

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click on photo for a magnified view
Photo shown courtesy of Chatzitheodoridis et al., 2013
For an explanation of the image components see the LPSC abstract.

Other evidence for possible indigenous martian biogenic activity has been presented by White et al. (2014). They have analyzed two distinctive carbon-rich features in the nakhlite Y-000593 associated with the orange-yellow-colored, complex secondary alteration phase iddingsite—a hydrous alteration mineral assemblege common in the nakhlite suite. One such feature has been described by the investigators as curved, sigmoidal-shaped, threadlike microtunnels that penetrate into adjacent olivine, consistent with bioerosion textures known to exist in terrestrial basaltic glass (see image A below). The other feature, similar in size and shape to certain terrestrial fossilized microbes, and is described in this meteorite as sub-µm-sized, close-packed, organic spherules embedded between layers of iddingsite (see image B below). A martian biogenic origin for these carbonaceous (kerogen-like) features in the nakhlites is under investigation.

standby for yamato biomorph photo
Photo shown courtesy of White et al., 2014
For an explanation of the image components see the article in Astrobiology, Vol 14, No. 2, 2014.

The nakhlite group presently comprises Nakhla, Lafayette, Governador Valadares, NWA 817, Y-000593/749/802, NWA 998, MIL 03346 and pairings, and NWA 5790/6148. Although ALH 84001 is an orthopyroxenite, and as such was characterized by the Planetary Chemistry Laboratory at Washington University as a subgroup of the nakhlites, its parental source magma has a composition that is consistent with the same mixtures of depleted and enriched REE end-member components that are used in a geochemical classification of the shergottites (Lapen et al., 2012). It was determined that the source magma of ALH 84001 contained a higher proportion of the enriched REE component than all other shergottites studied thus far. Therefore, ALH 84001 may be most appropriately classified as a subgroup of the shergottites. The specimen of Nakhla pictured at the top of this page is a 1.9 g fragment containing a patch of reddish-brown material (seen in the upper center of the image), probably an aqueous alteration product similar to iddingsite or smectite (and martian microbes?).



standby for mars photo