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Geologists who analyzed 40 meteorites that fell to Earth from Mars unlocked secrets of the Martian atmosphere hidden in the chemical signatures of these ancient rocks. Their study, published April 17 in the journal Nature, shows that the atmospheres of Mars and Earth diverged in important ways very early in the 4.6 billion year evolution of our solar system.

The results will help guide researchers' next steps in understanding whether life exists, or has ever existed, on Mars and how water -- now absent from the Martian surface -- flowed there in the past.

Heather Franz, a former University of Maryland research associate who now works on the Curiosity rover science team at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, led the study with James Farquhar, co-author and UMD geology professor. The researchers measured the sulfur composition of 40 Mars meteorites -- a much larger number than in previous analyses. Of more than 60,000 meteorites found on Earth, only 69 are believed to be pieces of rocks blasted off the Martian surface.

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