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Astrobiology. 2003 Summer;3(2):369-92.

Submicron magnetite grains and carbon compounds in Martian meteorite ALH84001: inorganic, abiotic formation by shock and thermal metamorphism.

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  • 1Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, Texas 77058, USA.


Purported biogenic features of the ALH84001 Martian meteorite (the carbonate globules, their submicron magnetite grains, and organic matter) have reasonable inorganic origins, and a comprehensive hypothesis is offered here. The carbonate globules were deposited from hydrothermal water, without biological mediation. Thereafter, ALH84001 was affected by an impact shock event, which raised its temperature nearly instantaneously to 500-700K, and induced iron-rich carbonate in the globules to decompose to magnetite and other minerals. The rapidity of the temperature increase caused magnetite grains to nucleate in abundance; hence individual crystals were very small. Nucleation and growth of magnetite crystals were fastest along edges and faces of the precursor carbonate grains, forcing the magnetite grains to be platy or elongated, including the "truncated hexa-octahedra" shape. ALH84001 had formed at some depth within Mars where the lithostatic pressure was significantly above that of Mars' surface. Also, because the rock was at depth, the impact heat dissipated slowly. During this interval, magnetite crystals approached chemical equilibria with surrounding minerals and gas. Their composition, nearly pure Fe(3)O(4), reflects those of equilibria; elements that substitute into magnetite are either absent from iron-rich carbonate (e.g., Ti, Al, Cr), or partitioned into other minerals during magnetite formation (Mg, Mn). Many microstructural imperfections in the magnetite grains would have annealed out as the rock cooled. In this post-shock thermal regime, carbon-bearing gas from the decomposition of iron carbonates reacted with water in the rock (or from its surroundings) to produce organic matter via Fischer-Tropschlike reactions. Formation of such organic compounds like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons would have been catalyzed by the magnetite (formation of graphite, the thermochemically stable phase, would be kinetically hindered).

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