In August 1996, television and print media announced with great excitement
the possibility of ancient life on Mars. This provocative news was based
on certain findings in a meteorite believed to have originated on Mars.
Four components in this meteorite suggested to researchers the existence
of ancient life on Mars. First, there were tiny structures inferred
to be bacterial fossils. Then, in close association with these alleged
fossils, there were three components often associated with terrestrial
life: magnetite, iron sulfide, and certain organic compounds called
polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The initial announcement was
reviewed in an earlier issue of Creation Matters (Wood, 1996).
The objective of this update is to provide more details about the ongoing
research and latest findings. It is clear that many scientific, philosophical,
and economic issues are impacted by this purported discovery.
Origin of meteorites
Based on comparison of reflectance spectra between meteorite minerals
and potential parent body spectra (McSween, 1994), it is believed that
the great majority of meteorites have come from asteroids that have
undergone collision in orbit. Several groups of meteorites have now
been identified: stony chondrites (84%); stony achondrites (8%); stony
irons (1%); and irons (7%). Within the stony achondrite class, there
is a group designated SNC, named after three specific meteorites: the
Shergotty, Nakhla, and Chassigny. While differing in many respects from
each other, the SNC meteorites have two characteristics which set them
apart from other meteorites: viz., their relatively young age
and their oxygen isotope ratio (17O/18O).
It is because of their relatively young, evolution-based radioisotope
age - 180 million years to 1300 million years - that it was proposed
that the SNC meteorites could not have come from the asteroids (McSween,
1994). The asteroid bodies are said to have formed, along with the rest
of the solar system, 4.5 billion radioisotope years ago. But, because
they are relatively small bodies, they must have cooled down long before
1300 million years ago. Neither would they have had any remaining magmatic
activity and resultant mineral crystallization as late as 1300 million
years ago. Thus, it was proposed that the SNC meteorites came instead
from a planet. The most likely candidate from a petrological and dynamic
perspective is Mars.
ALH84001 is the designation for the Antarctic meteorite claimed to
contain fossilized ancient life. It has many features that make it quite
distinct from the other achondrites, but its oxygen isotope ratio (17O/18O)
places it unequivocally in the SNC group of Martian meteorites (McSween,
1994). However, ALH84001 is unique among the SNC meteorites, which number
about 12, in the following respects: it is comprised mostly of orthopyroxene
(95%); it has 1% carbonate while the other SNC meteorites only have
trace amounts; based on fracture patterns, it evidently experienced
two or more shock events; and it is much older - 3000 to 4500 million
Table 1 shows the evolutionary petrological history of ALH84001 using
reported radioisotopic dates. These dates are all suspect, however,
because their significance depends on the validity of certain assumptions.
For example, in the Rb-Sr, Sm-Nd, and K-Ar dating methods involving
the use of isochrons, this writer saw no attempt to verify the assumption
of initial isotopic homogeneity. Furthermore, an initial isotopic correlation
may yield an apparent isochron, but one that is petrologically meaningless
(Zheng, 1989). This problem is also consistently disregarded.
The first events recorded in ALH84001, planetary accretion and differentiation,
have been dated using Sm-Nd model ages. These ages are dependent on
a correct initial 143Nd/144Nd ratio. To determine
that initial ratio requires the assumption of initial isotopic homogeneity.
Again, the validity of this assumption is generally not addressed by
The next event recorded is the first shock, which is evidenced by the
presence of shock breccia, pervasive cracking, and the polygonization
of orthopyroxene (Treiman, 1995). After the first shock episode, the
next event, aqueous alteration, is evidenced by the presence of zoned
carbonate globules, a structure that has not been found on the other
Martian meteorites. Based on the assumption that the they formed under
equilibrium conditions, high temperatures of about 700° C are required
for this unique combination of zoned carbonates - magnesite, siderite,
and ankerite. On the other hand, if one assumes the carbonate was formed
metastably (i.e., not under equilibrium conditions), this would
allow lower temperatures of formation (i.e., 0° C to 80° C).
Support for low temperatures of formation comes from oxygen isotopic
ratios, and from reasoning that at high temperatures there would be
a high rate of diffusion and elimination of the delicate Fe-Mg carbonate
zoning. The NASA research team chose to assume the low temperature scenario,
which allows for the formation of carbonate by means of bacterial activity
(McKay et al., 1996).
High-powered scanning electron microscopy revealed the presence of
tiny spherules (0.1 micron) and tubules which the researchers infer
to be bacterial fossils (McKay et al. 1996). These spherules
are an order of magnitude smaller than terrestrial bacteria and have
been termed nannobacteria by Folk (1993) who first identified similar
structures in terrestrial limestone. However, much controversy surrounds
these formations, even in terrestrial materials, and since no bacterial
cell walls or other organelles have ever been identified, their true
nature remains problematic. Thus, since no specific bacterium has been
positively identified, it is possible that these spheroidal structures
have resulted from inorganic precipitation.
Stable isotope biochemistry
Stable isotope chemistry of ALH84001 does not support the presence
of biologic activity on Mars. Organic processes, such as bacterial carbon
metabolic pathways, invariably select 12C rather than 13C,
thus causing biologic carbonates to be depleted in 13C (Tucker
and Wright, 1990). The ALH84001 carbonate, on the other hand, is enriched
in 13C, precluding its being formed by biologic activity.
Furthermore, within the ALH84001 carbonates, there are Fe-sulfides (pyrite
and pyrrhotite) and Fe-oxides (magnetite). Certain terrestrial sulfur-metabolizing
bacteria produce Fe-sulfides. However, just as with carbon selectivity,
sulfur-bacteria have a preference for 32S rather than 34S
(Shearer and Papike, 1996). Since the ALH84001 Fe-sulfides are enriched
in 34S, this again precludes the activity of sulfur-metabolizing
bacteria. Magnetite, also found in the ALH84001 carbonate globule, can
be produced by terrestrial magnetotactic bacteria as suggested by McKay
et al. (1995), but is also very commonly precipitated inorganically.
The second shock experienced by ALH84001, 8 to 15 Ma, is evidenced
by: the formation of maskelynite from plagioclase; microfault offsets
cutting silicates, oxides, and carbonates; and radial cracks around
maskelynite and chromite grains. It is suggested that this second shock
resulted from a meteorite impact on Mars with sufficient force to produce
ejecta, including ALH84001, which reached escape velocity (5 km/sec)
and entered into solar orbit.
The length of time ALH84001 stayed in space is determined by the abundance
of certain cosmogenic nuclides such as 10Be and 22Ne.
These isotopes are produced by the activity of cosmic rays while material
is in space. The validity of dates obtained from these isotopes is dependent
in turn upon certain assumptions. One assumption relates to the amount
of shielding from cosmic rays experienced by the meteorite's internal
minerals. This in turn depends on assumptions regarding the thickness
of the ablation layer which was lost on entry into Earth's atmosphere.
Other important assumptions include the occurrence and timing of one
or more collisions in space which would break up the meteorite, allowing
for greater cosmic ray exposure. Another has to do with how much exposure
to cosmic rays was experienced while the rocks were still on the surface
of Mars. Finally, whether radioactive saturation was reached in the
minerals is crucial to the determination of exposure age. In any case,
for the radionuclide 10Be, based on specific choices from
among the above assumptions, a cosmic exposure age of 8 Ma was determined;
and, for the radionuclide 22Ne, 15 Ma (Nishiizumi et al.,
1986; Pal, 1986).
McKay et al. (1996) indicated that analyses of the noble gases
trapped within glassy inclusions of one of the SNC meteorites (EET79001)
revealed that these gases were very similar to the gases analyzed by
the Viking spacecraft that landed on the surface of Mars. This was taken
as very strong proof of Martian origin for all the SNC meteorites. However,
analyses of gases in the same type of glassy inclusions from ALH84001
revealed noble gas composition very different from that found on Mars
by the Viking spacecraft (Ash et al., 1996). This raises questions
about the parent body of ALH84001; viz., is it really from Mars?
Because the issue of earth contamination was sure to be raised, McKay
et al. (1996) went to great lengths to exclude this possibility.
In their laboratory very strict controls were employed. For example,
a lunar rock chip was carried through the same analysis procedure as
was ALH84001 without finding the critical spheroidal texture present
in ALH84001. This indicated that the structure is not an artifact of
laboratory processing. Attempts to grow cultures from the meteorite
samples were negative. Organic compounds (PAHs) found in ALH84001 have
not been found in other Antarctic meteorites. On the other hand, it
was recently announced that PAHs have been found in Antarctic ice, and
they are definitely not of biogenic origin (Becker et al., 1997).
The PAH concentration in ALH84001 increases with depth into the meteorite.
This condition could result from Antarctic-derived PAHs being dissipated
from the surface by ultraviolet radiation exposure. Sulfides found in
ALH84001 are not the result of contamination since sulfides are not
found in Antarctica. Antarctic weathering deposits contain sulfur in
the form of sulfates because of the oxidizing environment. Finally,
no other Antarctic meteorite contains the amount of carbonate found
in ALH84001, suggesting that these carbonates are not the result of
On the other hand, in order to account for discrepant radioisotopic
dates, at least three research groups have suggested contamination of
some of the meteorite fractions. Jagoutz et al. (1994) suggested
Pb earth contamination to support their view that the Pb radioisotopic
dates represent mixing lines. The mixing line explanation was offered
because the Pb isotopic dates were very discordant with the 4.5 Ga Nd
isotopic date (Jagoutz et al., 1994). Ash et al. (1996)
suggested contamination with K-salts to support discordant Ar isotopic
dates. Entrapped earth atmospheric argon has been suggested to explain
measured argon isotopic ratios (Miura et al., 1994). However,
these suggestions of contamination are not based on empirical evidence.
They were offered by these researchers as unverified explanations for
discrepant radioisotopic dates.
Getting here from there
Skepticism has been expressed about whether a meteorite impact would
be able to eject rocks from the surface of Mars. Much effort has been
expended in developing models for this mechanism. To provide extra expulsion
power, it has been suggested that frozen carbon dioxide and/or water
vapor under the surface of Mars was vaporized by the impact of a huge
meteorite, providing a jet-assist for the ejected debris. The distribution
and size of Martian craters are being investigated to find craters large
enough to allow for the proposed ejection mechanism. This search has
been constrained by issues of young versus old Martian terrain, based
on the view that the age of Martian terrain is related to crater density.
Since ALH84001 is thought to be old, it is believed likely to have originated
from a portion of the Martian surface that is also old. Therefore, the
search has been for a very large crater in a part of Mars that is highly
Edward Anders reviewed the alleged evidence for life processes in ALH84001
in a recent Science magazine letter (Anders, 1996). He stated
that an inorganic explanation is at least equally plausible, and is,
by Occam's Razor, preferable. The PAH composition of ALH84001 is similar
to the organic molecular composition of carbonaceous chondrite meteorites
whose abiotic origin is commonly accepted. The association of the PAHs
with the carbonates may be attributed to a greater surface area or adsorption
capacity of the carbonate. The chemical zoning within the carbonate
globules involves the successive precipitation of MnCO3,
then CaCO3 followed by MgCO3. This sequence corresponds
to the increasing solubility products of Mn, Ca, and Mg carbonate. Carbonaceous
chondrite meteorites commonly contain magnetite and pyrrhotite formed
under abiotic conditions. Finally, Anders stated that the NASA researchers
did not even compare the greigite (Fe3S4) they
found in ALH84001 with abiotic greigite from nature and the laboratory
before proposing a biogenic origin.
The most recent research into ALH84001 involved study of the microstructure
of the magnetite crystals by Bradley et al. (1996). They have
raised major doubts as to their biogenic origin. Using very high resolution
Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM), they observed that many of the
magnetite crystals were shaped like whiskers and plates, and contained
screw dislocations. These morphologies have frequently been observed
in the laboratory, in fumaroles and hydrothermal solutions where temperatures
were over 500° C. Maximum possible temperatures for life processes is
considered to be 120° C. Magnetite crystals produced by terrestrial,
magnetotactic bacteria invariably are single-domain grains with a high
degree of crystal perfection. If the alleged ALH84001 nanofossils are
in fact high temperature asymmetrical magnetite crystals, these findings
cast a dark shadow on the likelihood of a biological origin of several
of the components of the meteorite.
Table 2 summarizes the many unanswered questions and differences of
interpretation which remain in the scientific community regarding meteorite
ALH84001. Close scrutiny of the references cited in this paper reveals
that too often scientists may uncritically accept concepts and interpretations
that further their own research program and funding. In evaluating such
reports, it is important to remember the overarching concepts which
may motivate some researchers: validation of the old age of the universe;
promotion of the cosmic and organic evolution paradigm; and, as a corollary
to these, the need to find life elsewhere in the universe. It is necessary,
therefore, that all claims be very closely examined. This obviously
includes presentations in the popular media, but more importantly, those
reports made in technical literature. Diligent and tenacious examination
of all such claims, assertions, and references is critical for this
subject which has enormously profound philosophical and theological
Anders, E. 1996. Evaluating the evidence for past life on Mars. Science
Ash, R.D., S.F. Knott, and G. Turner. 1996. A 4-Gyr shock age for a
Martian meteorite and implications for the cratering history of Mars.
Becker, L., D. Glavin, and J. Bada. 1997. to be published in Geochimica
et Cosmochimica Acta.
Bradley, J.P., R.P. Harvey, and H.Y. McSween. 1996. Magnetite whiskers
and platelets in the ALH84001 Martian meteorite: Evidence of vapor phase
growth. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 60(24):5149-5155.
Folk, R.L. 1993. SEM imaging of bacteria and nannobacteria in carbonate
sediments and rocks. Journal of Sedimentary Petrology 63(5):990-999.
Jagoutz, E., A. Sorowka, J.D. Vogel, and H. Wanke. 1994. ALH84001:
Alien or progenitor of the SNC family? Meteoritics 29:478-479.
McKay, D.S., E.K. Gibson Jr., K.L. Thomas-Keprta, H. Vali, C.S. Romanek,
S.J. Clemett, X.D.F. Chillier, C.R. Maechling, and R.N. Zare. 1996.
Search for past life on Mars: Possible relic biogenic activity in Martian
meteorite ALH84001. Science 273:924-930.
McSween, Jr., H. Y. 1994. What we have learned about Mars from SNC
meteorites. Meteoritics 29:757-779.
Miura, Y.N., N. Sugiura, and K. Nagao. 1994. New SNC meteorite ALH84001:
Evidence for SNC meteorite from noble gases (abstract). Lunar Planetary
Nishiizumi, K., M.W. Caggee, and R.C. Finkel. 1994. Exposure histories
of ALH84001 and ALHA77005 (abstract). Meteoritics 29:511.
Pal, D.K., C. Tuniz, R.K. Moniot, W. Savin, T. Kruse, and G.F. Herzog.
1986. Beryllium-10 content of shergottites, nakhlites and Chassigny.
Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 50:2405-2409.
Shearer, C.K. and J.J. Papike. 1996. Evaluating the evidence for past
life on Mars: in Technical Comments, Science 274:2121.
Treiman, A. H. 1995. A petrographic history of Martian meteorite ALH84001:
Two shocks and an ancient age. Meteoritics 30:294-302.
Tucker, M. E. and V.P. Wright. 1990. Carbonate Sedimentology.
Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford. London, England. p. 307.
Wood, T.C.. 1996. Was there really life on Mars? Creation Matters,
Zheng, Y. F. 1989. Influences of the nature of the initial Rb-Sr system
on isochron validity. Chemical Geology 80:1-16.
[Editor's note added in proof: As this article went to press,
two more articles appeared in the 14 March 1997 issue of Science.
Both provide additional indirect evidence of low temperature formation
of the carbonate globules in the meteorite. One line of reasoning is
based on remnant magnetization. The other article cites evidence from
stable isotopes and mineralogy.]
Extrasolar planets are all the rage in the astronomical community these
days. Until very recently in recorded history, only planets which revolve
around our own star, the Sun, have been known. Astronomers and just-plain-folks
have speculated about the existence of other planets around other stars
in the universe possibly since the dawn of time.
For the evolutionist, planets orbiting other stars in the universe
fit perfectly within their worldview. If the evolving cosmos produced
our solar system, then surely the same evolving cosmos has produced
a vast array of other planetary systems around other stars, the evolutionist
reasons. In the evolutionary worldview, there is nothing special or
unique about life, planet Earth, or our solar system. Since all origins
are the result of non-directed, natural processes, having a unique earth
and solar system is anathema to the evolutionist. Uniqueness conveys
"specialness;" and this smacks of a dangerous competing model
for origins: creation.
"Objects" in orbit
In the last 10 years astronomers have identified "objects"
in orbit around other stars. In 1988, David Latham's group at Harvard
identified an object orbiting the star HD 114762. Because of the mass
of the object (minimally 9 times the mass of the planet Jupiter, the
largest in our solar system), many astronomers refer to it as a "brown
dwarf" rather than a true planet. In 1991 Wolszczan and Frail discovered
"objects" orbiting pulsars (presumably a type of collapsed
star). Until 1995, the identity of these objects orbiting other stars
were debated among astronomers, with many preferring to label them as
"other" (a dark, small, or collapsed companion star, for example)
rather than a true planet. It should be mentioned that there are many
examples of binary star systems; that is, a system with two stars orbiting
each other (remember the scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, on Luke Skywalker's
home planet Tatooine, with the two setting suns? Oh, wait, that's science
fiction - sorry).
For many astronomers, the shroud of uncertainty over the existence
of extrasolar planets was lifted on 6 October 1995 when Mayor and Queloz
of Geneva Observatory announced the discovery of a "planet"
orbiting the star 51 Pegasi. Shortly after this find, American astronomers
Marcy and Butler announced finding 3 other similar "planets"
in orbit around 3 distinct stars. Shortly after the initial finding,
Ron Cowen of Science News stated, "Forget speculation. It's
no longer a matter for debate. As of last month [October 1995], astronomers
have proven they're out there - planets orbiting ordinary stars within
a stone's throw of our solar system." Headlines in the popular
media heralded the discovery in similar tones, leaving any lay-reader
with the impression that astronomers have actually seen extrasolar planets.
Actually, astronomers have not seen any of these planets. What actually
happened provides an instructive look into the "workings"
of science, and into the role assumptions and worldviews play in the
"doing" of science.
Indirect methods required
Discoveries of extrasolar "planets" have been made indirectly.
Of course, the possibility of observing a planet in orbit around another
star is extremely small. Planets do not generate their own light and
are much smaller than stars. So, rightly, astronomers are forced to
use indirect means to search for extrasolar planets. In order to detect
the "planet" around 51 Pegasi, astronomers used an indirect
spectroscopic technique. Spectroscopy was used to analyze the light
from 51 Pegasi over time. Variations in the spectroscopic signals led
astronomers to conclude that a "planet" was in orbit since
the variation in spectra might result from the gravitational pull of
an unseen planet.
If the interpretation of the spectroscopic signals is correct, the
"planet" around 51 Pegasi isn't exactly like Earth! The interpretation
suggests that a "planet" of at least 50% the mass of Jupiter
is in orbit only 0.05 AU (Astronomical Unit - 1 AU is the distance from
the Sun to the Earth) from the star. It is so close that it orbits the
star once every 4.2 days, as compared to once every 365.4 days for the
Earth to revolve around the Sun. Also, it is so close to its star (only
1/8 the distance of the Sun to Mercury, the Sun's closest planet) that
it gives new meaning to the phrase "a hot time on the old planet
Interestingly, the current interpretation techniques cannot determine
an extrasolar object's maximum mass; they can only set a lower limit
to the mass. All of the "planets" discovered so far are much
more massive than earth, suggesting gaseous makeup with high temperatures,
strong magnetic fields, and other nasty conditions inhospitable to life.
A problem for evolution?
Behind the astronomical scenes, the existence of such planets has caused
problems for evolutionists. Until now, astronomers "knew"
that giant planets could only form at a certain (far) distance from
the star. Evolutionary models of system formation demanded this. Now,
evolutionists must revise their models of solar system formation to
allow for close giant planets, such as the "planet" around
There's another problem: the "planet" around 51 Pegasi may
not really exist. Last month, Canadian astronomer David Gray claimed
that the previous interpretation of the 51 Pegasi spectra is wrong.
There is not a planet orbiting the star; instead, there is a "complex
sloshing" (analogous to ocean waves) on the star's surface, Gray
maintained. His paper in the journal Nature has caused quite
a fuss among astronomers. AP science editor Matt Crenson began his press
release with "[t]he first world ever found beyond the solar system
is but an illusion ...", while Washington Post correspondent Kathy
Sawyer wrote, "A Canadian astronomer claims he has, in effect,
made a planet vanish."
The current debate about extrasolar planets is instructive for creationists
for several reasons. First of all, scientific findings are built upon
philosophical foundations and assumptions. If evolution is true, then
the predictions of the model must be true also. The evolution model
predicts a vast number of extrasolar planets. (Again, there can be nothing
special about our solar system in the evolutionary model.) If it turned
out that ours was the only solar system in the universe, evolutionists
would be confounded. Given that foundation, it makes perfect sense for
an evolutionist to "see" extrasolar planets when examining
the spectra of stars. Do the biases and presuppositions of scientists
creep into their work? Absolutely.
Secondly, there are other valid interpretations for the data. Observing
a "planet" in orbit around another star in the present does
not give conclusive evidence for its origin. A creationist can interpret
the data as evidence for the degradation of the universe. Are we witnessing
the birth of planets, or are we witnessing the death of stars? Is it
possible for a star to burn out and be captured by another star?
Actually, evolutionists have a much more difficult task of explaining
where stars came from. All current evolutionary models require the existence
of stars in order to produce other stars! The question "where did
the first star come from?" is extremely difficult for an evolutionist.
If Gray's interpretation is correct, 33% of the current extrasolar objects
are disqualified from "planethood" since they were discovered
using similar techniques aimed at 51 Pegasi. Additionally, Gray's work
casts serious doubts on the validity of all current candidates for extrasolar
When I'm asked, "are there extrasolar planets?" I confidently
answer "I don't know." Seriously, though, I am aware of no
astronomical data that conflicts with the creation model. The creation
model does not rule out the existence of extrasolar planets. Yet, the
Bible is clear concerning the uniqueness of planet Earth. If extrasolar
planets exist, they certainly won't be anything like home! God declared
that He created the universe fully formed and functional during the
creation week. God uniquely created planet Earth as the home of His
creation. Has the universe changed since then? Absolutely! We do not
find evidence for the "building up" of the universe as predicted
by the evolution model; instead, we see data consistent with an initially
perfect creation which has since decayed. Yet, still "the heavens
declare the glory of God."
A publication of the Creation Research
Volume 2, Number 2
Copyright © 1997 Creation
All rights reserved.
General Editor: Glen Wolfrom
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