Science and Medicine

SCIENTIFIC SERENDIPITY
Research on Lasers Led Chemists into Mars Project

By Janet Basu and David F. Salisbury


So, how did a team of chemists from Stanford ever get involved in looking for life on Mars? For Professor Richard Zare and the scientists in his lab, it began with a search for pollution on Earth.

Zare and generations of graduate students have devised ways to use lasers to detect substances stuck to the surface of objects, in amounts so small that ordinary chemical analysis would destroy or contaminate the substances. As part of that work, the researchers built a “two-step laser mass spectrometer” that is the most sensitive instrument of its kind in the world.

Clemett, ChillierClemett, Chillier

That sensitivity attracted NASA scientist David McKay and his colleagues at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Two-and-a-half years ago, they sent several slivers of a mystery rock to Zare’s lab, with this request: Analyze the rock, but handle it very carefully. Later, they explained why. The precious slivers were cut from deep inside a meteorite. Recent studies had shown that it almost certainly was formed on the planet Mars, then tossed into space during a giant asteroid impact and dropped on Antarctica some 13,000 years ago.

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NOV/DEC 1996

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