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The rock that inspired Mars exploration

Photo of the martian meteorite ALH84001. Dull, dark fusion crust covers about 80% of the sample.
Photo of the martian meteorite ALH84001. Dull, dark fusion crust covers about 80% of the sample.

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On Sunday the rover Curiosity is set to land on Mars. That planet has been a high priority for NASA in recent years. But that wasn’t always the case. There were almost no missions to Mars in the 80s and 90s. But all that changed, in part thanks to a small rock that fell from the sky.

It was a chunk of meteorite about the size of a baked potato. Scientists determined that it came from Mars by analyzing the gases trapped inside it. The rock has a boring name, but space enthusiasts think the specimen itself is anything but ordinary.

“It’s a rock-star in our world," says NASA engineer Rob Manning. "It has changed the way we think about life and how it can move around.”

Manning works at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. He’s contributed to several Mars missions, including Curiosity. He says the "Mars rock" was found in the 1980s in Antartica - though it probably landed there thousands of years earlier.

Space scientist Scott Hubbard says it's not the only chunk of Mars that was knocked from that planet and landed here, but this particular sample had something amazing inside of it.

“Micro-fossils from Mars," Hubbard explains. "Tiny squiggly things that maybe dried out Mars life."

When researchers released their findings in August of 1996, even President Bill Clinton weighed in, saying "If this discovery is confirmed, it surely will be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered.”

Not all scientists agreed that these tiny squiggly fossils were the outlines of Martian life, but the findings raised a lot of questions.

First, the fossils are smaller than a strand of DNA. Scientists have never encountered organisms so microscopic, they wondered if life can even be that tiny. They also speculated, if there were living things on that rock, could they have survived the trip through space?

Bill Nye, head of the Planetary Society says that idea has profound implications.

“It is not crazily beyond, beyonding everybody, that life started on Mars, got hurled into space and landed here and we are all descendants of Martians." Nye exclaims. "It’s not crazy. And it’s worth finding out.”

NASA agreed. Through the 80s and 90s entusiasm for exploring Mars had dropped significatly. After the discovery of ALH84001, the space agency ramped up its efforts. Since then it has sent satellites, landers and several rovers. Curiosity is the latest.

Project engineer Rob Manning says that rock with the funny name inspired a generation of exploration.

“The more we have looked at Earth and the other planets and looked out, the more interconnected we see ourselves," Manning says. "And there is something truly profound to be able to turn the pages of this fantastic book of life."

If all goes well Sunday, NASA hopes Curiosity will be able to answer at least some of the questions posed by ALH84001.