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KNOXVILLE — A University of Tennessee geologist has confirmed that a baseball-sized rock found recently in a desert in the Middle East is a rare meteorite from Mars.

Dr. Larry Taylor, director of UT’s Planetary Geosciences Institute, said the stone is one of only about 14 Martian meteorites known on Earth, and only the third from a desert region.

Taylor said the rock might tell scientists more about fossil remains found in the Martian meteorite ALH84001 which NASA researchers say are evidence of life on Mars.

“Most of the few Martian meteorites we know of come from the South Pole, where they contrast with the ice and are easier to see,” Taylor said.

“This is a rare find and is touching off whole new explorations for meteorites in desert areas.”

Private rock hunters found the meteorite in February in Oman, a nation near the Persian Gulf, and contacted Dr. Misha Nazarov, curator of the Russian meteorite collection at Moscow’s Vernadsky Institute.

Nazarov, who works with Taylor on NASA research to study lunar samples and meteorites, brought the stone to UT where his colleague confirmed its origin.

Taylor sent samples to Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Johnson Space Center, and the University of Mexico where tests verified the UT findings.

Taylor said the meteorite, named Dhofar 19 for the Oman town it was found near, will be examined for signs of life.

In 1996, NASA announced that organic molecules and microscopic fossils found in the meteorite ALH84001 were evidence of life on Mars.

Some said bacteria from Earth may have contaminated the meteorite and left behind traces of life. Taylor said studies of Dhofar 19 could help settle that controversy.

“During its time on Earth, Dhofar 19 has been in a climate of extreme heat. That is an entirely different environment than ALH84001 and most other Martian meteorites, which are from the South Pole and have been under extreme cold,” Taylor said. “So we are curious to see if it contains the same type of fossil evidence.

“This could relate directly to the question of terrestrial contamination. A rock from an extremely hot environment should not have the same type of life forms as one from an extremely cold climate.”

Dhofar 19 was found along with 39 other meteorites in Oman, but it is the only one known to be from Mars. The find is encouraging scientists to search other desert areas for meteorites, Taylor said.

“The rocks stand out in the sand much the same way they contrast against the Antarctic ice,” Taylor said. “The deserts may give us new places to find for more meteorites.”