The century-old mystery of the Martian meteorite is revealed: how a strange clue from Earth helped scientists

A toxin that causes vomiting in pigs has helped scientists solve the age-old mystery of the origin of the Martian

meteorite. And also to understand who exactly found it.

How did it all start?

In 1931, an unusual stone, which is stored inGeological Collection at Purdue University in the United States, has been identified as an example of an "untouched" meteorite - a piece of space rock ejected from the surface of Mars millions of years ago before being sucked into the Earth's atmosphere. However, how and when the meteorite that became known as Lafayette ended up in the university's collection remained unclear for more than 90 years.

What are the versions?

Scientists have one theory of origin.It is based on the "testimony" of the American space rock collector Harvey Nieninger, dated 1935. According to his story, an African-American student at Purdue University witnessed a meteorite land in a pond where he was fishing. He pulled him out of the mud where he fell and donated to the university.

Meteorite Lafayette. Photo: NASA

Previous attempts to corroborate this story did notwere crowned with success. But now, researchers have used cutting-edge analysis and archival data to gather enough evidence that the story is true. They wanted to know exactly when this happened - either in 1919 or 1927 - and who exactly found the Lafayette meteorite.

Detective investigation

"Scientific investigation" began in 2019,when planetary scientist and PhD Ayn O'Brien of the University of Glasgow crushed a tiny sample of the Lafayette meteorite and used sophisticated mass spectrometry to analyze its composition. She tried to find traces of organic molecules preserved in it in order to learn more about possible life on Mars.

Dr. Ein O'Brien of the School of Geographic and Geosciences at the University of Glasgow in the laboratory of the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Center (SUERC).
Credit: University of Glasgow/Chris James

Among the thousands of metabolites found inAs a result of the analysis, O'Brien noticed a metabolite that was too much associated with the Earth - deoxynivalenol (abbr. DON). DON is vomitoxin, literally "vomit toxin" (from the English vomit - vomiting). It is found in Fusarium graminearum, a fungus that infects crops such as corn, wheat, and oats. In Russia, it is called Fusarium cereal. When swallowed, it causes disease in humans and animals, especially pigs.

Fusarium graminearum
Authorship: fk. Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Intrigued by the presence of "vomit toxin" inMartian meteorite, the planetary scientist told colleagues, including those at Purdue University, who were familiar with the story of Lafayette's "landing" in the mud. They speculated that dust from crops on neighboring farmlands may have carried DON into nearby waterways and that the meteorite was "contaminated" with the toxin when it fell into the pond.

What did the scientists find out?

Archival records have shown that the toxin causeda fall in yields of 10–15% in 1919 and another, less pronounced, in 1927. This was the highest abundance of vomitoxin in the 20 years prior to 1931, when the meteorite was identified.

Analysis of observations of "fireballs" for the samethe period gave more potential clues about the exact time of Lafayette's landing. Meteorites heat up as they descend through Earth's atmosphere, causing a bright streak of fire across the sky. Various documents reported similar sightings in southern Michigan and northern Indiana on November 26, 1919, and another in 1927, when the Tilden meteorite fell in Illinois.

Who found the meteorite?

Purdue University archivists looked through yearbooks for 1919 and 1927 to find African-American students enrolled at the time.

Researchers identified four blacksstudents from Purdue University, one of whom may have found Lafayette. Clockwise from top left: Hermanze Edwin Fauntleroy, Clinton Edward Shaw, Julius Lee Morgan and Clyde Silence.
Photos courtesy of Purdue University

Julius Lee Morgan and Clinton Edward Shaw,1921 graduates, and Hermanze Edwin Fauntleroy, 1922 graduates, were enrolled at Purdue in 1919. A fourth person, Clyde Silence, attended Purdue in 1927. Scientists have concluded that it is possible that one of these men found Lafayette, if the origin story shared by Nieninger from 1935 is to be believed.

Why is it important?

Article co-author, Dr. Marissa Tremblay,noted that "the Lafayette meteorite is very important to Purdue, especially now that the university has a thriving planetary research group that has just celebrated its 10th anniversary."

Among other things, he is surprisingly good.preserved. And, therefore, quickly "recovered" after landing, according to the "official" history of the origin of Lafayette. “I am proud that, a century after landing on Earth, we can finally reconstruct the circumstances of his “arrival”,” the author of the study concludes.

The group's paper, titled "Using Organic Pollutants to Limit the Earth's Travel of the Martian Lafayette Meteorite," was published in the journal Astrobiology.

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