The bulk of clay minerals on Mars could have been formed as the red planet's crust cooled and solidified, not by later interactions with water on the surface as has long been assumed, a study has found.
Planetary scientists from Brown University in the US have proposed a new scenario for the formation of ancient clay minerals on Mars that, if shown to be true, could rewrite the early history of the red planet.
There are thousands of ancient phyllosilicate outcrops on the martian surface.
Phyllosilicates, or clays, are formed by the interaction of water with volcanic rock, leading many scientists to conclude that there must have been sustained surface water, groundwater or active hydrothermal systems at some point in Martian history.
However, the study published in the journal Nature suggests that the clays may have formed during the creation of the martian crust itself, long before any water flowed on the planet.
Mars and other rocky planets are thought to have been covered by oceans of molten magma, researchers said.
As the Mars magma ocean began to cool and solidify, water and other dissolved volatiles would be outgassed to the surface, forming a thick, steamy atmosphere surrounding the planet, they said.
The moisture and heat from that high-pressure steam bath would have converted vast swaths of the newly solidified surface to clay.
As the planet then evolved over billions of years, volcanic activity and asteroid bombardments would have covered the clays in some places and excavated them in others, leading to the widespread but patchy distribution seen on the surface today.
"The basic recipe for making clay is you take rock and you add heat and water," said Kevin Cannon, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Central Florida who led the research while completing his PhD at Brown.
"This primordial atmosphere created by a magma ocean would have been the hottest and wettest Mars ever was. It is a situation where you could pervasively alter the crust and then just shuffle those materials around afterward," said Cannon.
Researchers said the scenario offers a means of creating widespread clay deposits that does not require a warm and wet climate or a sustained hydrothermal system on early Mars.
State-of-the-art climate models suggest an early Mars where the temperature rarely crept above freezing and where water flow on the surface was sporadic and isolated, researchers said.
"One of the complications that comes up in Mars evolution is that we can not create a scenario where surface weathering had the capacity to produce the extent of mineral alteration that we see," said Jack Mustard, a professor at Brown.
"We are certainly not trying to discount other alteration mechanisms entirely. Surface weathering and other types of alteration surely occurred at different points in martian history, but we think this is a plausible way to explain much of the widespread clay we see in the oldest martian terrains," said Mustard.
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