Three-billion-year-old Martians spotted in South Kensington

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The Martians have landed... perhaps. The Natural History Museum in London yesterday opened a two-month exhibition containing a fragment of rock from the meteorite that first led scientists to suggest that life may have developed on Mars billions of years ago, writes Charles Arthur.

Two weeks ago, a team from the US space agency Nasa announced that they thought they had found traces of the remains of early cellular life in meteorite ALH 84001. The meteorite was knocked off Mars about three billion years ago, and landed in Antarctica about 14,000BC.

The news led to a surge in enquiries at the Natural History Museum, where researchers had earlier looked at pieces from the meteorite. They first identified the carbonate deposits which led the Nasa scientists to examine it in detail.

"We feel it's important that we communicate to visitors the work that goes on behind the scenes," a spokewoman for the museum said yesterday. "This is, after all, a leading scientific research institute."

The exhibition contains a fragment from ALH84001 displayed under a microscope connected to a video screen, and a fist-sized piece of another Martian meteorite discovered in Egypt earlier this century. Visitor numbers at the museum have leapt by 50 per cent.