Martian meteorites land at Army lab
NASA officials say that some rare and distinct meteorites found on Earth were actually blasted off Mars by a large impact event. One such rock from the red planet made its way to an Army laboratory recently for a special X-ray look inside.
Researchers from the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command's Army Research Laboratory—the Army's corporate laboratory, known as ARL—have powerful tools to look deep inside metal and rock using X-ray scanning technology. Using CT scans, also known as computed tomography scans, they can see into objects and provide insightful analysis.
Dr. Jennifer Sietins, an ARL materials engineer, ran tests on a meteorite named Black Beauty (NWA 7034), a sample about the size of a baseball and weighing about half a pound.
"What's unique about Black Beauty is that it's one of the oldest Martian meteorites that has been discovered on Earth and it's been proven to have some evidence of water," Sietins said. "That's what makes it so special."
Scientists from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in nearby Greenbelt, Maryland, were touring ARL's materials research facilities when they noticed the high-tech X-ray equipment. They immediately proposed a collaborative project to look at Apollo 16 lunar samples. The moon project soon led to the Martian meteorite project.
Black Beauty, discovered in the Sahara Desert in 2011 and sold to a private collector, made its way to NASA for analysis, and that is how Army researchers came to peer inside.
The Army instruments provide higher resolution images at full three-dimensional volume non-destructively. Army researchers use this equipment to study the relationships between the processing of materials—the microstructure—and ultimately relate that to mechanical performance. For instance, 3-D printed materials are scanned for defects and researchers use this information to create stronger materials for future Soldiers.
For NASA, the scans are a goldmine of data previously invisible.
"NASA can ultimately use some of this information to further their understanding for their next mission to Mars," Sietins said.
The NASA team said they see this collaboration as "beneficial."
"I'm an optimistic guy because discovery comes from working with lots of smart women and men," said Dr. James Garvin, chief scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. "This partnership we've been developing—this collaboration with the Army Research Lab in these new measurements of new things—has been extraordinary. We've already discovered things that were against what was thought with the existing materials. Space is a big place and there's a lot of work to be done."
Sietins said the ARL team was impressed when they saw the Martian meteorites for the first time.
"We met in a conference room and they took it out and we were all able to put on gloves and hold it. So that was really neat," Sietins said. "It's just amazing that this came from another planet and we can hold it in our hands."
The teamwork makes science and exploration more innovative and just plain fun, Garvin said.
Dr. Justin S. Jones, a material engineer at NASA Goddard and the head of its Nondestructive Evaluation Branch, said he's optimistic about the collaboration between the Army and NASA.
"I think what we all have in common is just curiosity and an interest in what we're doing," Jones said. "We're all very passionate about what we do. I'm passionate about technology and new technology and anything we can do to improve how we do things. I think those same curiosities are felt at ARL."
Scientists from both organizations plan to jointly publish two journal articles later this year about the research into both lunar and Martian X-ray scans.
"We are all discoverers and that is what we have been doing with the U.S. Army," Garvin said. "The meteorites have an amazing story to tell."