Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Evidence Clay Formed on Mars Less Than 2 Billion Years ago During the Amazonian

Recent orbital and rover missions to Mars have turned up ample evidence of clays and other hydrated minerals formed when rocks are altered by the presence of water. Most of that alteration is thought to have happened during the earliest part of Martian history, more than 3.7 billion years ago. But a new study shows that later alteration -- within the last 2 billion years or so -- may be more common than many scientists had thought.

The research, by Brown University geologists Ralph Milliken and Vivian Sun, is in press in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

The lion's share of the clay deposits found on Mars thus far have turned up in terrains that date back to the earliest Martian epoch, known as the Noachian period. Clays also tend to be found in and around large impact craters, where material from deep below the surface has been excavated. Scientists have generally assumed that the clays found at impact sites probably formed in the ancient Noachian, became buried over time, and then were brought back to the surface by the impact.

That assumption is particularly true of clay deposits found in crater central peaks. Central peaks are formed when, in the aftermath of an impact, rocks from within the crust rebound upward, bringing layers to the surface that had been buried many kilometers deep.

"Because central peaks contain rocks uplifted from depth, some previous studies have assumed the clays found within central peak regions are uplifted too," said Milliken, assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences. "What we wanted to do was look at lots of these craters in detail to see if that's actually correct."

Milliken and Sun performed a survey of 633 crater central peaks distributed across the Martian surface. They looked at detailed mineralogy data collected by NASA's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), combined with high-resolution stereo images taken by NASA's HiRISE camera. Both instruments fly aboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Of those 633 peaks, Milliken and Sun found 265 that have evidence of hydrated minerals, the majority of which were consistent with clays. The researchers then used HiRISE images to establish a detailed geologic context for each of those craters to help determine if the clays were in rocks that had indeed been excavated from depth. They found that in about 65 percent of cases the clay minerals were indeed associated with uplifted bedrock.

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