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Mars attacks! Morocco pelted with rocks from the Red Planet

Ochre space bonanza worth ten times its weight in gold

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Excited boffins have confirmed that a meteorite shower over Morocco last July dumped about 7kg of Martian rocks on our planet.

The find is only the fifth time that scientists have been able to tell that a witnessed meteor shower contained samples from the Red Planet.

It's quite handy for Martian meteors to land on Earth since no spacecraft has yet been able to get to the ochre world and bring specimens back. Aside from the scientific benefits, the rarity of the samples also means they're worth quite a lot of money, more than ten times as much as gold.

The bulletin from the International Society for Meteoritics and Planetary Science, naming the meteor Tissint, said that the rocks came down on July 18 last year.

"A bright fireball was observed by several people in the region of the Oued Drâa valley, east of Tata, Morocco," the investigating scientists said. "One eyewitness, Mr Aznid Lhou, reported that it was at first yellow in colour, and then turned green illuminating all the area before it appeared to split into two parts. Two sonic booms were heard over the valley. In October 2011, nomads began to find very fresh, fusion-crusted stones in a remote area of the Oued Drâa intermittent watershed."

The boffins conducted chemical tests to prove the stones were Martian in origin. Astronomers believe that something big smashed into Mars millions of years ago, sending debris spinning out into the solar system that occasionally ends up here on Earth.

"It's Christmas in January," former NASA sciences chief and director of the Florida Space Institute Alan Stern told newswire The Associated Press. "It's nice to have Mars sending samples to Earth, particularly when our pockets are too empty to go get them ourselves."

Four universities have managed to get their hands on some of the materials, but the remainder is in the hands of traders and collectors, including dealer Darryl Pitt. His website shows the Tata meteorites on sale at between $375 and $650 a gram, while today's gold price is hovering around $53 a gram.

Boffins who get a hold of the samples hope the rocks haven't been too contaminated by their six month stay on Earth to provide further information on the composition of Mars. Those who are hugely optimistic might be harbouring hopes that the rocks could give some indications of whether or not the Red Planet could sustain life, although that's quite unlikely.

The kind of rock that could hold water or life is soft and unlikely to survive falling through Earth's atmosphere, Steve Squyres, principal investigator for NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Programme, told AP. ®

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