Other Work

Pushing the Boundaries of the Cosmic and the Microscopic: A Chunk of Rock on Antarctica's Ice Leads to Astounding Theory on Mars
By Kathy Sawyer
The Washington Post | Sunday, Aug. 11, 1996, Pg. A01

Geologist Roberta "Robbie" Score was on her first trip to Antarctica, cruising along in a snowmobile one typical below-zero summer day in 1984, when she spotted something dark against the landscape of ancient blue ice.

The dull, gray chunk of rock -- a seemingly ordinary meteorite -- languished for the next eight years misclassified and forgotten in a nitrogen-filled laboratory cabinet in Houston. Now, 12 years after Score plucked it off the bottom of the world, it has become one of the most famous and intensely studied specimens in history: a kind of interplanetary "message in a bottle."

A team of NASA researchers last week galvanized attention around the world with the bold and controversial claim that they had detected, deep within fissures in the rock, what appear to be fossil remnants of primitive microscopic organisms that swam or drifted through fizzy carbon-rich waters just under the surface of Mars some 3.6 billion years ago. At this same time, aboriginal microbes were populating the young Earth.

The scientists, their bosses and eventually the president of the United States knew that, in going public, they would be staking their reputations on one of the most astounding scientific claims ever made.

It was not made hastily. The chain of circumstantial evidence in this remarkable detective story was developed painstakingly, sometimes by people who didn't realize what they had.

There were sleepless nights, and months of working in anxious secrecy, checking and rechecking. And there was the persistent question they asked each other, one the world would soon echo: "Can this be real?"

At the heart of it all was the rock.

Antarctica has produced more than 16,000 meteorite finds, or close to half of all those found in the world. Robbie Score packed the 4.26-pound meteorite Allan Hills 84001 (named for the place where it fell) in ice in a field container. It was dispatched by ship, plane and truck to the Meteorite Processing Laboratory at Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, next door to the lab where the lunar samples from the Apollo missions are stored.

Researchers there initially classified it as belonging to a commonplace category of meteorite believed to be fragments of asteroids. And it might have remained in this oblivion.

But then, less than three years ago, geologist David W. Mittlefehldt happened to analyze a slice of AH84001 as one of several (he thought) ordinary samples from a familiar asteroid called 4 Vesta. But the chemical signature he found in AH84001, to his surprise, could not possibly have come from 4 Vesta.

He solved the mystery, finally, when he found an unexpected match for the rock: meteorites believed to come from Mars. (One of them reportedly killed a dog when it fell in Egypt in 1911. Others have fallen in France, Egypt, India, Brazil and Nigeria as well as in Antarctica.)