Meteor Crystals Spark Latest 'Life on Mars' Hype

A media frenzy about life on Mars broke out back in 1996 when researchers announced they had found what they interpreted to be fossilized bacteria on a rock from the red planet. Photos of a little, worm-shaped structure were liberally posted, and the subject was discussed for weeks.

But after the frenzy died down, other scientists determined the markings were not fossils, but were simply artifacts of inorganic processes.1 And though the original evolution-friendly claim enjoyed widespread attention, its methodical retraction received significantly less coverage.2

Now, some of the scientists involved in the 1996 “fossil” findings are pointing to very tiny magnetite crystals in the same rock sample as their latest hope for evidence of life on Mars. In a recent study, they concluded that these crystals probably did not form as a result of heating, which would have occurred when the meteorite impacted earth.3 Rather, they look very similar to tiny magnetite crystals that some bacteria form today.4

Everett Gibson, a NASA senior scientist and co-author of the paper published in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, said in a NASA press release, “We believe that the biogenic hypothesis is stronger now than when we first proposed it 13 years ago.”3 (Biogenic refers to features that result from the activity of living organisms.)

The argument follows thus: A rock somehow escaped Mars’ gravity, crossed at least 38 million miles of outer space, travelled through earth’s atmosphere, and landed in Antarctica with sizeable pieces still intact, one of which contained ultramicroscopic features that might have come from bacteria. Therefore, life must have evolved on Mars from non-life, just as life must have evolved on earth long ago, too.

But there are serious flaws in this scenario. For example, if bacteria-like cells emerged on Mars separately from the bacteria that developed on earth, why would those organisms have produced magnetite crystals just like earth bacteria do?

Many seem convinced that finding life outside earth would “prove” that it was generated by random processes. But the very long list of reasons why life could not have started on its own still stands.5 “Finding life somewhere else would only increase the number of places where evolution can’t explain it.”6 Because Mars is not capable of being inhabited, if these crystals were actually produced by life forms, they most likely came from earth bacteria.7

Perhaps the rock, which was found on earth, was from earth. Or, perhaps having come from Mars, it was subsequently contaminated by earth bacteria. It is even remotely possible that Mars itself could have been seeded with earth bacteria. The sun is known to blow dust from the earth’s atmosphere into space, which might be a means to transport bacteria spores to Mars. Since bacteria are known to exist on earth, and since Mars’ surface is known to be sterile, any evidence of bacteria on Mars is most easily interpreted as having originated from earth bacteria. And none of these possibilities require evolution.

Nevertheless, the ideas that this rock came from Mars, that these crystals resulted from bacteria, that those bacteria therefore originated on Mars, and that those Martian bacteria were generated by nature are again being trumpeted in the news. Reporters have not asked these researchers to respond to all the evidence that refuted their 1996 claims, like the fact that the worm-shaped objects found back then were smaller than known bacteria. All the problems have been ignored. ICR News predicts that natural explanations for these magnetite crystals will be found or later emphasized, but that such findings will not make it into main media headlines.


  1. David, L. Controversy Continues: Mars Meteorite Clings to Life - Or Does It? Posted on March 20, 2002, accessed December 9, 2009.
  2. Ardi and Ida are modern examples of this treatment. See Thomas, B. Scientists Back Off of Ardi Claims. ICR News. Posted on December 8, 2009.
  3. Jeffs, W. P. New Study Adds to Finding of Ancient Life Signs in Mars Meteorite. NASA press release, November 30, 2009, citing research published in Thomas-Keprta, K. L. et al. 2009. Origins of magnetite nanocrystals in Martian meteorite ALH84001. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. 73: 6631-6677.
  4. Thomas, B. Bacterial Compasses Point to Creation. ICR News. Posted on August 13, 2009, accessed December 3, 2009.
  5. For example, see articles listed under Only God Could Have Made Cells. Posted on, accessed December 3, 2009.
  6. Psarris, S. 2009. What You Aren’t Being Told about Astronomy, Volume 1: Our Created Solar System. DVD. Directed by Spike Psarris. Creation Astronomy Media.
  7. Coppedge, D. F. Atmospheres: A Narrow Zone for Life. Acts & Facts. 38 (8): 18.

Image credit: NASA

* Mr. Thomas is Science Writer at the Institute for Creation Research.

Article posted on December 15, 2009.

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