Eridania Basin: An ancient paleolake floor as the next landing site for the Mars 2020 rover
Pajola et al
The search for traces of past Martian life is directly connected to ancient paleolakes, where ponding water or low-energy water fluxes were present for long time intervals. The Eridania paleolakes system, located along the 180° meridian, is one of the largest lacustrine environments that were once present on Mars. Morphological features suggest that it was constituted by connected depressions filled by water to maximum depths of ∼2400 m and a volume of at least 562,000 km3. We focused our attention on the northern side of the Eridania Basin, where high-albedo, uneven patches of material characterized by the absence of dust are present. Based on OMEGA and CRISM orbital imaging spectroscopy data, a large clay-bearing unit has been identified there. In particular, a set of aqueous minerals in present in the stratigraphy, being visible through erosional windows in the first several tens of meters of the sedimentary sequence. Below this capping unit, a thin Al-rich clay stratum attributable to Al-smectite and/or kaolins is present. This overlies a Fe-rich clay stratum, attributable to the nontronite smectite. At the base of the mineralogic sequence a stratum that could be either a zeolite or more likely a hydrated sulfate is present. In addition, small deposits of alunite (a rare phase on Mars), and jarosite are here found at several locations. Such stratigraphy is interpreted as originating from a surface weathering process similar to terrestrial abiotic pedogenesis; nonetheless, possible exobiologic processes can be also invoked to explain it. NASA's Spirit rover landed on Gusev crater in 2004, near the mouth of the Ma'adim Vallis, which connects this crater with the considered paleolakes system. The Eridania site provides the unique opportunity to complete the measurements obtained in Gusev crater, while investigating the exposed mineralogical sequence in its depositionary setting. In addition, the extremely favorable landing parameters, such as elevation, slope, roughness, rock distribution, thermal inertia and dust coverage, support this location as a possible landing site for the NASA Mars 2020 rover.