ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Once upon a time, a very long time ago, a rogue asteroid slammed into the fourth planet from the sun, spewing untold Martian debris into deep and seemingly endless space.
Absolutely nothing was known about the 700,000-year-old cosmic collision until July 2011, when people in a remote desert valley in Morocco watched in awe as a fireball plowed its way through the nighttime sky. One witness described the object as yellow, then turning green before it broke in two. Two separate sonic booms shattered the silence.
A few months later, nomads began finding fresh, fusion-crusted stones in a remote area about 30 miles from the village of Tissint. Now, collectively, those rocks are known as the Tissint meteorite.
A study published earlier this month in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science by a team of researchers from China, Japan and Germany revealed that a carbon compound encased in the meteor was organic in nature.
And it almost certainly originated on Mars.
Could this mean there is – or was – life on Mars, even if we have to go back more than 700,000 years?
Zachary Gallegos, 27, a graduate student at the University of New Mexico, is keenly interested in Tissint and all things Martian.
First of all, he is a candidate for the Mars One space mission, set to blast off 10 years from now. Mars One has just shortened the list of what was once more than 200,000 potential candidates to 663. Gallegos made the cut.
Those who make the Mars One journey know there likely will be no coming back. The goal is to establish humankind’s first permanent colony on the planet that is the most like Earth in the solar system.
All 663 finalists will face a major test in the coming months: personal interviews with the program’s medical director. Asked how he is preparing for his interview, probably at the end of January, Gallegos simply shrugged.
“I know the mission,” he said. “Other than that, I just do what I do and keep up to date.”
That includes the Tissint analysis.
“This is pretty amazing,” he said.
Also this month, the Orion spacecraft – unmanned – soared 3,604 miles above the Earth. It was the farthest a spacecraft built for humans has traveled since Apollo 17, NASA’s last lunar flight. That was 42 years ago.
Orion survived a 20,000-mph, 4,000-degree re-entry over the Pacific Ocean. Engineers needed to see how well its heat shield held up before they can even begin considering putting a human crew on board.
Altogether, Orion spent five hours from its launch at Cape Canaveral to its splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, with two orbits of Earth included. NASA is now “one step closer” to a manned flight, Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. told The Associated Press.
He called it “Day One of the Mars era,” a statement Gallegos found encouraging.
A few years ago, Gallegos worked on NASA’s Constellation program before it was cancelled, and Orion is a direct outgrowth of Constellation.
“NASA is now seriously talking about sending people to Mars in the 2030s,” he said. “This will help people realize that it’s not such a crazy idea.”