New studies of clay formation provide clues about early Martian climate

February 6, 2018, SETI Institute
Ancient Noachian rocks on Mars are mapped in light gray with valley networks colored in blue tones and surface clays marked in yellow. Two locations with abundant smectite clays formed in surface environments include Mawrth Vallis (MV) and Nili Fossae (NF). The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is currently at Gale Crater (GC) where smectite clays have also been found.  Credit: SETI Institute

New research published in Nature Astronomy seeks to understand how surface clay was formed on Mars despite its cold climate.

The climate on early Mars has presented an enigma for planetary scientists because features such as valley networks indicate abundant liquid water was present and the minerals found in most ancient surface rocks need even warmer temperatures to form, while atmospheric models generally support a on early Mars. This new study led by Janice Bishop of the SETI Institute and NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley has addressed this question by investigating the conditions needed for the formation of the ancient surface clays.

Part of this early Martian climate puzzle comes down to how "warm" is warm. Currently Mars' is below freezing, but we know it must once have been warm enough for liquid water to carve out features on the surface. However, cold water is not warm enough for surface clays to form. "We realized that in order to better constrain the early Martian climate, we needed to understand the formation conditions of Martian clays," said Bishop.

This study evaluated the types of clays present in ancient, altered rocks on Mars and separated these into 3 categories: 1) Mg-rich clays formed at (100-400 °C) below surface (e.g. mixtures of saponite, serpentine, chlorite, talc, and carbonate), 2) clays formed at (20-50 °C) in lakes, streams or rainy environments (dioctahedral Fe-rich or Al-rich smectites), and 3) poorly crystalline aluminosilicates such as allophane formed at (<20 °C). The authors used results from weathering in the field, clay synthesis experiments in the lab, and geochemical modeling of clay formation.

A view of light-toned phyllosilicates at Mawrth Vallis, Mars captured by the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) flown on Mars Express and provided by DLR and Free University in Berlin. This image illustrates water features cutting through the thick surface clay deposits. Credit: SETI Institute

The authors postulate that short-term warm and wet environments, occurring sporadically in a generally cold early Mars, enabled the formation of the observed surface smectite occurrences on Mars.

Further, there is a trade-off between temperature and time.

Cooler temperatures (15-20 °C seasonal, diurnal Tmax) would require sustained periods of high water/rock ratio on Mars to produce the observed smectite outcrops. This could mean hundreds of millions of years at 5 °C global mean average temperature on Mars, which is unlikely given the current models of the atmosphere.

New studies of clay formation provide clues about early Martian climate
Geochemical modeling of nontronite formation shows that formation is almost nonexistent below 10 °C and still very slow up to 20 °C. Reaction proceeds significantly faster up to 40 °C and higher. Credit: SETI Institute

Surface smectite (nontronite, montmorillonite) beds may have formed quickly during short-term periods of warm temperatures (25-40 °C seasonal, diurnal Tmax ). This could mean tens of thousands or millions of years at a global mean average temperature of 10-15 °C on Mars at intervals over hundreds of millions of years. These elevated temperatures could have been caused by volcanism, obliquity changes, or large impacts.

Understanding the on early Mars provides constraints for when liquid water was present on the surface and is essential for determining where on Mars to search for life. Clays are the most abundant hydrated mineral on Mars; thus, defining their formation conditions is a big step towards understanding the geochemical environment on Mars.

New studies of clay formation provide clues about early Martian climate
This diagram illustrates the timeline for water (blue) on the surface of Mars. Ancient Mars was likely cold with transient warming events that enabled formation of the surface clays (green) in warm water (20-40 °C). These surface clays have persisted through generally cold and dry climates since their formation, but are cut by fluvial events arising after formation of the clays that may have been warm enough to form liquid water but not warm enough to form additional clays. Credit: SETI Institute

Explore further: Research on clay formation could have implications for how to search for life on Mars

More information: Janice L. Bishop et al. Surface clay formation during short-term warmer and wetter conditions on a largely cold ancient Mars, Nature Astronomy (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41550-017-0377-9

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