Opals Are Out Of This World

Opals Are Truly Out Of This World

Of all the tremendous discoveries scientists are finding on the planet Mars, the one that fascinates us the most is that there are opals found there. More interesting still, is the prospect that there might be signs of life on the red planet.

The meteorite Nakhla, held in the collections of the London Natural History Museum, has been found to contain microscopic traces of a mineral known as fire opal by a team from the University of Glasgow.

To explain briefly, on Earth, fire opals form around hydrothermal vents on the sea floor – hot, chemically-rich areas where microbes thrive. As the opals form, through the interaction of rocks with the seawater, they can trap microbes.

Analyses of the surface of Mars appear to show areas of opal, but the discovery of fire opals in the Nakhla meteorite is the first direct proof that they can form on the planet. The opal regions of Mars could now be a good target for future explorations looking for signs of early life.

Lead author Prof Martin Lee, from the University of Glasgow, said: ‘Our discovery of opal is significant. If Martian microbes existed, it’s possible they may be preserved in opal deposits on the surface of Mars.’

The findings were reported this week in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science. The opals were investigated with a powerful scanning electron microscope and found to be most similar in structure to our own fire opals on Earth, so named for their brilliant orange, yellow and red base color(not to be confused with the play of color from precious opal).

The volcanic rocks that make up the meteorite are 1.3 billion years old, but previous studies on the Nakhla meteorite by the same group have shown that water altered the rocks around 630 million years ago. The meteorite fell to Earth in 1911 near the village of El Nakhla El Bahariya in Egypt.

Dr Caroline Smith, Museum Curator of Meteorites and co-author of the study, said: ‘We are able to use specimens from the Museum's meteorite collection. Using sophisticated laboratory techniques we confirm findings from Mars’ robotic exploration missions.

‘This combination of data, from rovers, orbital missions and earth-based analyses of Martian meteorites, is providing yet more evidence of Mars' geological history and the tantalizing possibility that it had environmental conditions perhaps capable of supporting life.’

The Nakhla meteorite, which is named for the town in which it landed, crashed to Earth on June 28, 1911. About 22 pounds of meteorite debris (about 40 pieces) were scattered over a three-mile area. The largest piece weighed about four pounds. Some fragments were embedded three feet into the ground.

Fossils preserved within opals on the surface of Mars could prove the existence of extraterrestrial life. NASA scientists purposely targeted the Jezero crater n Mars because it was a rich source of a mineral that was likely to preserve microbial or plant material.

The recent discovery of a cicada trapped within an opal opens up the possibility that the Mars rover could find a much larger fossil. The opal containing the cicada was discovered in Indonesia and studied by an international team of scientists at the ISTerre laboratory in Grenoble, France.

Dr. Gene Kritsky, a cicada expert and the dean of Behavioral and Natural Sciences at Mount St. Joseph University, told Cincinnati Public Radio that opals could dramatically expand our understanding of life on other planets. “We now know that the next landing sites on Mars contain opaline silica,” Kritsky said. “That means if you want to look for fossils on Mars, one of the places you can look is in the opals on Mars. The implications of this discovery extend beyond the pure obvious ‘Oh this is kinda neat, we’re finding insects in opal.’ The broader implications are that it may help us understand some places to look if we want to find evidence of fossil life on extraterrestrial planets.”

Scientists believe the meteorite was blasted from the face of Mars by a powerful impact of unknown origin. Witnesses in Egypt reported seeing the meteorite approaching from the northwest along a track marked by a column of white smoke.

While conventional opals are mined primarily in the dry, dusty Australian outback. Fire opals, a form of common opal, are found in a number of countries, including British Columbia, Canada, Mexico and Brazil. Fire opals get their blazing color from fine traces of iron oxide in their chemical composition. They have a hardness of between 6 and 6.5 on the Mohs scale, which means they are susceptible to scratching and require a protective setting when used in fine jewelry, especially as a ring.

So, besides the beauty, romance, hardscrabble locations yielding opal, amazing jewelry and prestige of owning an opal, now comes the reality that opals exist on other worlds.

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