Machine learning identifies the origin of the most famous Martian meteorite to land on Earth

Somewhere between five and ten million years ago, an asteroid crashed into Mars, creating a massive crater. Like getting caught in the crossfire of a friend’s drama, a piece of detritus from that explosive impact made its way all the way to Earth.

Found in northern Africa in 2011, meteorite NWA 7034 dubbed “Black Beauty”, weighs 320g, and is the oldest and most famous Martian meteorite. New research, led by Perth’s Curtin University, has pinpointed Black Beauty’s origin on Mars’s surface and the study has involved collaborators from France, Ivory Coast and the US.

The findings of the multidisciplinary study were published in a paper appearing in Nature Communications.

Making use of the Pawsey Supercomputer in Perth, the researchers have been able to identify the crater that resulted in the ejection of the meteor that landed in the western Sahara.

The crater was named after the Pilbara city of Karratha, which is located more than 1500km north of the Western Australian capital and is home to the one of the oldest terrestrial rocks. The team hopes that NASA will prioritise the area around the Karratha Crater for future Mars missions.

Karratha Crater on Mars. Karratha crater is at centre, within Dampier Crater. Credit: NASA MRO

Black Beauty and paired stones came from Martian rocks which were formed when the crusts of both Mars and Earth were still young – 4.5 billion years ago. The meteorite can, therefore, be used to compare the early formation of the two planets.

“Finding the region where the Black Beauty meteorite originates is critical because it contains the oldest Martian fragments ever found, aged at 4.48 billion years old, and it shows similarities between Mars’ very old crust, aged about 4.53 billion years old, and today’s Earth continents,” says lead author Dr Anthony Lagain from Curtin’s Space Science and Technology Centre.

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“The region we identify as being the source of this unique Martian meteorite sample constitutes a true window into the earliest environment of the planets, including the Earth, which our planet lost because of plate tectonics and erosion.”

Analysing thousands of high-resolution images of the red planet taken from a range of Mars missions, the supercomputer identified about 90 million impact craters. One of the fastest in the southern hemisphere, the Pawsey supercomputer’s machine learning algorithm identified the Karratha Crater as Black Beauty’s source.

The distribution of 90 million craters on the surface of Mars obtained from the Crater Detection Algorithm. Credit: Lagain et al. 2021, Nature Communications and Lagain et al. 2022, Nature Communications.

Black Beauty is the only Martian sample on Earth that is brecciated. Brecciation refers to angular fragments of multiple rock types cemented together. All other Martian meteorites contain single rock types.

“For the first time, we know the geological context of the only brecciated Martian sample available on Earth, 10 years before the NASA’s Mars Sample Return mission is set to send back samples collected by the Perseverance rover currently exploring the Jezero crater,” says Lagain.

Such technology will also be used to identify the source of other Martian meteorites and identify billions of impact craters on the surface of Mercury and the Moon. More than 300 Martian meteorites have been found on Earth to date.

Credit: Lagain et al, 2022, Nature Communications.

Co-author Professor Gretchen Benedix, also from Curtin’s Space Science and Technology Centre, says the research has opened up the possibility of creating the most comprehensive understanding of Mars’s geological history.

“We are also adapting the algorithm that was used to pinpoint Black Beauty’s point of ejection from Mars to unlock other secrets from the Moon and Mercury,” Benedix says. “This will help to unravel their geological history and answer burning questions that will help future investigations of the Solar System, such as the Artemis program to send humans on the Moon by the end of the decade, or the BepiColombo mission in orbit around Mercury in 2025.”

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