Mars’ cold, icy past revealed in new research

Cold Icy Mars Surface Art Concept

A study suggests Mars had a cold, subarctic climate similar to Newfoundland, based on soil analyses of Gale Crater. The finding offers new insights into the preservation of amorphous materials and Mars’ potential to support life. (Artist’s concept.) Credit:

A new study has found important clues in the Red Planet’s soil.

Recent research examining soils of the Earth and Mars suggests that the historical climate of Mars was cold and subarctic, similar to Newfoundland. The study focused on amorphous materials in the floor of Gale Crater, which may have been preserved by near-freezing conditions, providing new insights into the Martian environmental conditions and potential for life.

Exploring Mars’ past climate through Earth’s soils

The question of whether Mars once supported life has captivated the imaginations of scientists and the public for decades. Central to the discovery is understanding the past climate of Earth’s neighbor: Was the planet warm and wet, with seas and rivers much like those on our own planet? Or was it freezing and icy, and therefore potentially less likely to support life as we know it?

A new study shows similarities between the soil on Mars and that of Canada’s Newfoundland, an area with a cold subarctic climate.

first two full-resolution images of the Martian surface

The rim and floor of Gale Crater as seen from NASA’s Curiosity Rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Insights from Gale Crater Soil Analysis

The study, published in the journal Communication Earth and Environment on July 7, searched for soils on Earth that had similar materials to Gale Crater on Mars. Scientists often use soils to record environmental history, because the minerals present can tell the story of how a landscape evolved over time. Understanding how these materials formed could help answer long-standing questions about historical conditions on the Red Planet. The soils and rocks of Gale Crater provide a record of the Martian climate between 3 and 4 billion years ago, during a time when water was relatively abundant on the planet—the same period when life first emerged on Earth.

“Gale Crater is a paleo-lake floor — there was clearly water there. But what were the environmental conditions when the water was there?” said Anthony Feldman, a soil scientist and geomorphologist now at DRI. “We’re never going to find a direct analog on the surface of Mars, because the conditions are so different between Mars and Earth. But we can look at trends under Earth conditions and use those to try to extrapolate to questions about Mars.”

Newfoundland Tablelands

The study site in the Newfoundland Tablelands. Credit: Anthony Feldman/DRI

Challenges in analyzing Martian materials

NASA’s Curiosity Rover has been exploring Gale Crater since 2011 and has found an abundance of soil materials known as “x-ray amorphous material.” These components of the soil lack the typical repeating atomic structure that defines minerals and therefore cannot be easily characterized using traditional techniques such as x-ray diffraction. When x-rays are shot at crystalline materials such as a diamond, the x-rays scatter at characteristic angles based on the internal structure of the mineral. X-ray amorphous material, however, does not produce these characteristic “fingerprints.” This x-ray diffraction method was used by the Curiosity Rover to show that x-ray amorphous material comprised between 15 and 73 percent of the soil and rock samples tested at Gale Crater.

“You can think of X-ray amorphous materials as Jello,” Feldman says. “It’s a soup of different elements and chemicals just sliding past each other.”

The Curiosity Rover also performed chemical analyses on the soil and rock samples, finding that the amorphous material was rich in iron and silica, but poor in aluminum. Beyond the limited chemical information, scientists don’t yet understand what the amorphous material is, or what its presence implies about the historical environment of Mars. Uncovering more information about how these enigmatic materials form and persist on Earth could help answer persistent questions about the Red Planet.

Field studies that mimic conditions on Mars

Feldman and his colleagues visited three locations in search of similar x-ray amorphous material: the Tablelands of Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, the Klamath Mountains in Northern California, and western Nevada. These three locations had serpentine soils that the researchers expected to be chemically similar to the x-ray amorphous material in Gale Crater: rich in iron and silicon, but lacking in aluminum. The three locations also yielded a range of rainfall, snowfall, and temperatures that could provide insight into the types of environmental conditions that produce amorphous material and promote its preservation.

At each site, the research team examined the soils using x-ray diffraction analysis and transmission electron microscopy, which allowed them to look at the soil materials at a more detailed level. The subarctic conditions of Newfoundland produced materials that were chemically similar to those in Gale Crater, but also lacked crystal structure. Soils produced in warmer climates such as California and Nevada did not.

“This shows that you need the water there to form these materials,” Feldman said. “But it has to be cold, with an average annual temperature near freezing, to maintain the amorphous material in the soil.”

Amorphous material is often thought of as relatively unstable, meaning that the atoms have not yet been organized at the atomic level into their final, more crystalline forms. “There’s something going on in the kinetics – or the rate of reaction – that slows it down, so that these materials can be preserved over geologic timescales,” Feldman says. “What we’re suggesting is that very cold, near-freezing conditions, is a specific kinetic limiting factor that allows these materials to form and be preserved.”

“This study advances our understanding of the Martian climate,” Feldman said. “The results suggest that the abundance of this material in Gale Crater is consistent with subarctic conditions, similar to what we would see in Iceland, for example.”

Reference: “Fe-rich X-ray amorphous material records past climate and water persistence on Mars” by Anthony D. Feldman, Elisabeth M. Hausrath, Elizabeth B. Rampe, Valerie Tu, Tanya S. Peretyazhko, Christopher DeFelice, and Thomas Sharp, July 7, 2024, Communication Earth & Environment.
DOI file: 10.1038/s43247-024-01495-4

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