Late formation of the Earth’s inner core

The layered structure of the Earth was discovered using the varying arrival times of seismic waves from major earthquakes, which pass through the Earth, at seismometer stations located across the planet’s surface. Analysis of these arrival times indicates the wavepaths taken through the planet, involving reflections and refractions at boundaries of materials with distinctly different physical properties. S-waves from an earthquake do not arrive in a wide ‘shadow zone’ around its antipode. Since that kind of wave depends on shearing and cannot pass through liquid the shadow reveals the presence of an outer core made of very dense liquid iron and nickel. P-waves that travel in a manner akin to sound waves also show a shadow but it is annular in form around the antipode because of refraction at the core-mantle boundary, but they do penetrate to reach the antipode. However, their arrival times there show faster speeds than expected from an entirely liquid core, and so reveal a central mass, the inner core, which is a ball of solid iron-nickel alloy about 70% of the Moon’s size.

The Earth’s internal structure as revealed by seismic waves (Credit: Smithsonian Institute)

Movements of liquid Fe-Ni in the outer core generate Earth’s magnetic field in the manner of a self-exciting dynamo. Motion in the outer core results from convection of heat from below – probably mainly heat generated by planetary accretion – coupled with the Earth’s rotation and the Coriolis Effect.  The present style of motion is in a thick molten layer trapped between the solid mantle and the inner core. Its circulation results in a magnetic field with two distinct poles close to the geographic ones. The field is crudely similar to that of a bar magnet, with lesser deviations spread around the planet. However, it is not particularly stable, as shown by periodic flips or reversals of polarity through geological time (see: How the core controls Earth’s magnetic field reversals; April 2005).

Few geoscientists doubt that the core formed early in Earth’s history from excess iron, nickel and sulfur, plus other siderophile elements such as gold, that cannot be accommodated by the dominant silicates of the mantle. This could not have been achieved other than by iron-rich melts sinking in some way because of their density. Gradual loss of original heat of accretion and declining radiogenic heat from rare isotopes (e.g. 40K) in the melt suggests an original, totally molten core that at some time began to crystallise under stupendous pressure in its lowest parts. A fully molten core would have been turbulent and therefore able to generate a magnetic field, and Archaean rocks still retain remanent magnetisation. The form that the field took can only be modelled. At times it may have been dipolar – paleomagnetic pole positions match geological evidence for early supercontinents –  and it may have undergone reversals. When the inner core formed has long remained disputed, yet thanks to advances in palaeomagnetic analysis it may now have been resolved  (Zhou, T. and 11 others 2022. Early Cambrian renewal of the geodynamo and the origin of inner core structure. Nature Communications, v. 13, article 4161; DOI:10.1038/s41467-022-31677-7).

Tinghong Zhou of the University of Rochester, USA, and colleagues from other US, Chinese and British institutions have assiduously measured the original magnetic intensities locked in tiny iron- and iron-titanium oxide needles trapped in feldspars that dominate plutonic igneous rocks, known as anorthosites, of late Precambrian age. They found that, by about 565 Ma ago during the Ediacaran Period, the Earth’s magnetic field strength had fallen to almost a sixth of its value in the early Archaean: about 15 times less than it is today. Within a mere 30 Ma it had risen to become 5 times its lowest value , as recorded by a Cambrian anorthosite, and then rose steadily through the Phanerozoic Eon to its present strength. Modelling of the rapid rebound suggests that the inner core had begun to crystallise by about 550 Ma to reach half its present radius by the end of the Ordovician Period (~450 Ma).

That event may also have been a milestone for the continuation of biological evolution on Earth. While Mars once probably had a molten core and magnetic field, it vanished 4 billion years ago, probably when its core became solid. Early Mars had an ocean in its northern hemisphere up to about 3.8 Ga, and there is plenty of evidence for erosion by water on its higher surfaces. For liquid water to have existed there for hundreds of million years demands a thick, warm atmosphere able to initiate a greenhouse effect. With low atmospheric pressure water could have existed only as ice or water vapour. Now its atmosphere is very thin and except at its poles there is no sign of surface water, even as ice (it is possible that significant amounts of water ice remain protected beneath the surface of Mars). One hypothesis is that when Mars lost its magnetic field it also lost protection from the stream of energetic particles known as the solar wind, which can strip water vapour and carbon dioxide – and thus their ability to retain atmospheric heat – from the top of the atmosphere. Earth is currently protected from the solar wind by its strong magnetic field and magnetosphere that deflects high-speed, charged particles. During the Ediacaran Period it almost lost that protection, but was spared by the self-exciting dynamo being regenerated.

See also: How did Earth avoid a Mars-like fate? Ancient rocks hold clues. Science Daily, 25 July 2022

Rare meteorite gives clues to the early history of Mars

Apart from the ages and geochemistry of a few hundred zircon grains we have no direct evidence of what the earliest crust of the Earth was like. The vast bulk of the present crust is younger than about 4 billion years. The oldest tangible crustal rocks occur in the 4.2 billion year (Ga) old Nuvvuagittuq greenstone belt on Hudson Bay. The oldest zircon grains have compositions that suggest that they formed during the crystallisation of andesitic magmas about 4.4 Ga ago about 140 Ma after the Earth accreted. But, according to an idea that emerged decades ago, that does not necessarily represent the earliest geology. Geochemists have shown that the bulk compositions of the Earth and Moon are so similar that they almost certainly share an early history. Rocks from the lunar highlands – the light areas that surround the dark basaltic maria – collected during the Apollo missions are significantly older (up to 4.51 Ga). They are made mainly of calcium-rich feldspars. These anorthosites have a lower density that basaltic magma. So it is likely that the feldspars crystallised from an all-enveloping ‘magma ocean’ and floated to form an upper crust on the moon. Such a liquid outer layer could only have formed by a staggering input of energy. It is believed that what became the Moon was flung from the Earth following collision with another planetary body as vapour, which then collapsed under gravity and condensed to a molten state (see: Moon formed from vapour cloud; January 2008). Crystallisation of the bulk of anorthosites has been dated to between 4.42 to 4.35 Ga (see: Moon-forming impact dated; March 2009). The Earth would likely have had a similar magma ocean produced by the impact (a much fuller discussion can be found here), but no tangible trace has been discovered, though there is subtle geochemical evidence.

The surface geology of Mars has been mapped in great detail from orbiting satellites and various surface Rovers have examined sedimentary rocks – one of them is currently collecting samples for eventual return to Earth. Currently, the only materials with a probable Martian origin are rare meteorites; there are 224 of them out of 61 thousand meteorites in collections. They are deemed to have been flung from its surface by powerful impacts to land fortuitously on Earth. It is possible to estimate when they were ejected from the effects of cosmic-ray bombardment to which they were exposed after ejection, which produces radioactive isotopes of a variety of elements that can be used in dating. So far, those analysed were flung into space no more than 20 Ma ago. Meteorites with isotopic ‘signatures’ and mineral contents so different from others and from terrestrial igneous rocks are deemed to have a Martian origin by a process of elimination. They also contain proportions of noble gases (H, Ne, Ar, Kr and Xe) that resemble that of the present atmosphere of Mars. Almost all of them are mafic to ultramafic igneous rocks in two groups: about 25 % that have been dated at between 1.4 to 1.3 Ga; the rest are much younger at about 180 Ma. But one that was recovered from the desert surface in West Sahara, NW Africa (NWA 7034, nicknamed ‘Black Beauty’) is unique. It is a breccia mainly made of materials derived from a sodium-rich basaltic andesite source, and contains much more water than all other Martian meteorites.

The ‘Black Beauty’ meteorite from Mars (NWA 7035) with a polished surface and a 2 mm wide microscope view of a thin section: the pale clasts are fragments of pyroxenes and plagioclase feldspars; the rounded dark grey clast is a fine-grained basaltic andesite. (Credits: NASA; Andrew Tindall)

If you would like to study the make-up of NWA 7035 in detail you can explore it and other Martian meteorites by visiting the Virtual Microsope devised by Dr Andrew Tindall and Kevin Quick of the British Open University.

The initial dating of NWA 7034 by a variety of methods yielded ages between 1.5 to 1.0 Ga, but these turned out to represent radiometric ‘resetting’ by a high-energy impact event around 1.5 Ga ago. Its present texture of broken clasts set in a fine-grained matrix suggests that the breccia formed from older crustal rock smashed and ejected during that impact to form a debris ‘blanket’ around the crater. Cosmogenic dating of the meteorite indicates that the debris was again flung from the surface of Mars at some time in the last 10 Ma to launch NWA 7034 beyond Mars’s gravitational field eventually to land in northwest Africa. But that is not the end of the story, because increasingly intricate radiometric dating has been conducted more recently.

‘Black Beauty’ contains rock and mineral fragments that have yielded dates as old as 4.48 Ga. So the breccia seems to have formed from fragments of the early crust of Mars. Indeed it represents the oldest planetary rock that has ever come to light. Some meteorites (carbonaceous chondrites) date back to the origin of the Solar System at around 4.56 Ga ago, and were a major contributor to the bulk composition of the rocky planets. However, the material in NWA 7034 could only have evolved from such primordial materials through processes taking place within the mantle of Mars. That was very early in the planet’s history: less than 80 Ma after it first began to accrete. It could therefore be a key to the early history of all the rocky planets, including the Earth.

There are several scenarios that might account for the composition of NWA 7034. The magma from which its components originated may have been produced by direct partial melting of the planet’s mantle shortly after accretion. However, experimental partial melting of ultramafic mantle suggests that andesitic magmas would be unlikely to form by such a primary process. But other kinds of compositional differentiation, perhaps in an original magma ocean, remain to be explored. Unlike the Earth-Moon system, there is no evidence for anorthosites exposed at the Martian surface that would have floated to become crust once such a vast amount of melt began to cool. Some scientists, however, have suggested that to be a possibility for early Mars. Another hypothesis, by analogy with what is known about the earliest Archaean processes on Earth, is secondary melting of a primordial basaltic crust, akin to the formation of Earth’s early continental crust.

Only a new robotic or crewed mission to the area from which NWA 7034  was ‘launched’ can take ideas much further. But where on Mars did ‘Black Beauty’ originate? A team from Australia, France, Cote d’ Ivoire, and the US have used a range of Martian data sets to narrow down the geographic possibilities (Lagain, A., and 13 others 2022. Early crustal processes revealed by the ejection site of the oldest martian meteorite. Nature Communications, v. 13, article 3782; DOI 10.1038/s41467-022-31444-8). The meteorite contains a substantially higher content of the elements thorium and potassium than do other Martian meteorites. Long-lived radioactive isotopes of K, Th and U generate gamma-ray emissions with distinctly different wavelengths and energy levels. Those for each element have been mapped from orbit. NWA 7034 also has very distinct magnetic properties, and detailed data on variations on the magnetic field intensity of Mars have also been acquired by remote sensing. Images from orbit allow relative ages of the surface to be roughly mapped from the varying density of impact craters: the older the surface, the more times it has been struck by projectiles of all sizes. These data also detect of craters large enough to have massively disrupted Martian crustal materials to form large blankets of impact breccias like NWA 7034. That is, ‘targets’ for the much later impact that sent the meteorite Earthwards. Using a supercomputer, Lagain et al. have cut the possibilities down to 19 likely locations. Their favoured source is the relatively young Karratha crater in the Southern Hemisphere to the west of the Tharsis Bulge. It formed on a large ejecta blanket associated with the ancient (~1.5 Ga) 40 km wide Khujirt crater.

Interesting, but sufficiently so to warrant an awesome bet in the form of a mission budget?

Pinpointing the source of Martian meteorites and a stab at magmatism on Mars

Most meteorites found on the Earth’s surface are fragments of small bodies left over from the accretion of the planets around 4.5 billion years ago, thanks largely to collisions among larger, asteroid-sized bodies. A minority have other origins: some as debris from otherwise icy comets and a few that have been flung off other rocky planets or large moons by crater-forming impacts. Meteorites suspected to have originated through impact are ‘rocky’ – i.e.  made of silicates – and have textures and mineral contents suggesting they formed late in planetary evolution. Most are igneous with basaltic or ultramafic composition: respectively lavas and cumulates formed in magma chambers. Some are breccias, hinting at a pyroclastic origin. The radiometric ages of such planetary fragments are generally far younger than the times when the solar system and planets formed.  Almost 300 have been classified as coming from Mars, only two of which are older than 1400 Ma. The most numerous group of Martian meteorites, known as shergottites, crystallised between 575 and 150 Ma ago to form crust of igneous origin. During the journey from their source to Earth meteorites are exposed to high-energy cosmic rays that generate a variety of new isotopes, from whose relative proportions their travel time can be estimated. The shergottites all seem to have been blasted from Mars a mere 1.1 Ma ago, suggesting that a single impact launched them. So, identifying their source crater on Mars would enable the shergottites to be treated in the same way as samples collected by geologists from a small locality on Earth. Their geochemistry should give important clues to processes within Mars over a time period that spans the late-Precambrian to early Cretaceous on Earth.

Kuiper crater on the Moon, with rays and secondary craters. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University, USA)

There are many craters on Mars, so homing-in on a single source for shergottite meteorites might seem a tall order. A strategy for doing that depends on recognising craters formed by impacts with sufficient energy to eject debris at the escape velocity from Martian gravity: about 5 km s-1 compared with 11 km s-1 for Earth. Calculations suggest that such impacts would produce craters larger than 3 km across. Large ejecta travelling at slower speeds from them would fall back to produce smaller craters arranged radially from the main crater, forming distinctive rays. Anthony Lagain and colleagues from Curtin University, Western Australia and other institutions in Australia, USA, France and Côte d’ Ivoire adapted a detection algorithm to locate craters less than 1 km across that formed in rays around larger craters (Lagain, A. and 10 others 2021. The Tharsis mantle source of depleted shergottites revealed by 90 million impact craters. Nature Communications, v. 12, article6352; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-26648-3). They used 100 m resolution images of thermal emission from the Martian surface that most clearly distinguish large craters that have ejecta deposits around them. Then they turned to images with 0.25 m resolution covering the visible spectrum that can spot very small craters. The authors’ analysis compiled around 90 million impact craters smaller than 300 metres across (a quarter the size of the celebrated Meteor Crater in Arizona).

Laser-altimetry data that show two large impact craters and their ejecta aprons on the Tharsis Plateau of Mars and two of its huge volcanoes: grey-brown-red-orange-yellow-green = high-to-low elevations. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Arizona State University)

Dust storms on Mars gradually fill and obscure small craters and ejecta rays, so the younger the impact event, the more visible are rays and secondary small craters. Luckily, just two large craters on Mars have well-preserved rays that contain high densities of small secondary craters. Both of them lie on the Tharsis Plateau near the Martian Equator. This is a vast bulge on the planet’s surface – 5000 km across and rising to 7 km – characterised by three enormous shield volcanoes that rise to 18 km above the average elevation of Mars. The authors judge that one or the other crater is the source for shergottite meteorites, and that this meteorite class collectively samples the most recent igneous rocks that form the Tharsis Plateau. So vast is its mass, that the plateau has probably built-up over most of Mars’s history. One hypothesis is that the bulging has progressively developed over a huge thermal anomaly that has supported a mantle superplume for billions of years from which basaltic magma has steadily moved to the surface.

This model of a perpetual hot spot beneath Tharsis implies that the magmas that it has generated in the past have progressively depleted the underlying mantle in the incompatible trace elements that preferentially enter magma rather than remaining in solid minerals during partial melting. Having been able to suggest that the 575 to 150 Ma-old shergottites represent the upper crust of Tharsis that formed at that late stage in its history, Lagain et al. use those meteorites’ well-established trace-element geochemistry to test that hypothesis. They do indeed suggest their derivation by partial melting of mantle rocks that had in earlier times been strongly depleted in incompatible elements. One of the greatest mysteries about Mars’ evolution may have been resolved without the need for a crewed mission.

Where is Mars’s water?

A delta at the edge of Jazero Crater on Mars; definite evidence that water once flowed into the crater. Colours show different minerals in the delta sediments (credit: Brown University)

Early in the exploration of Mars using orbiting imaging systems it was easy to be sceptical about evidence for water being present at or near the surface of the Red Planet. Resolution was poor and some claims seemed to be wishful thinking or a sort of astronautical agitprop. For instance, gullies on steep slopes appeared so sharp that they must be forming continually, otherwise Mars’s periodic huge dust storms would have muted them. Some scientists claimed that they were signs of flowing water and even presented pictures from different overpasses that showed changes in them, such as darkening and small shifts in microtopography, which may have resulted from flowing water. Because Mars has a mean surface temperature of about -50°C that seems unlikely; at such extremes in Antarctica spit at the ground and it lands as ice. Nonetheless a bit of special pleading that deeply buried ice in Martian sediments might melt because of pressure gave the idea some traction.

A far more plausible explanation for the active gulley formation is that loose fine sediment can flow in the manner of a liquid, as it does in sand dunes on Earth (see: First signs of liquid water on Mars? June 2000). Yet as remotely sensed image coverage expanded and its resolution improved (currently about 50 cm) masses of evidence for drainage networks, signs of catastrophic floods and even glaciers (The glaciers of Mars, July 2003) emerged. Huge areas of the planet bore witness to a period in its past history – 4.1 to 3.8 billion years (Ga) ago – when it was a warm and wet planet. It has even been suggested that the flat, low-elevation northern hemisphere was the bed of a former ocean, covering about a third of Mars to a depth of about a kilometre. Now the planet has a hyperarid surface and a very thin atmosphere dominated by CO2, a little nitrogen and argon but almost no water vapour (~0.03%). Its poles are covered by ice caps whose extents fluctuate seasonally. They each have a core of permanent water ice, and seasonally expand and contract due to formation and sublimation of dry ice made of solid CO2. So what happened to Mars’s once abundant water?

One long-held theory is that water and most of Mars’s original atmosphere escaped to space. A suggested mechanism is the photo-dissociation of water to hydrogen and oxygen. Mars’s gravity cannot prevent hydrogen escape, which would leave an excess of atmospheric oxygen. One thing in abundance on the Martian surface is oxygen combined in iron oxides (Fe2O3); hence its red coloration. This hematite may have formed during chemical weathering of surface rocks and sediments during the wet phase, which released Fe2+ ions that were immediately oxidised by the hyper-oxygenated atmosphere that resulted from photo-dissociation. But there is another plausible explanation …

The lake-bed sediments of Gale Crater on Mars from NASA’s Curiosity rover (credit: NASA/JPL, California Institute of Technology)

The much publicised successful landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover on 18 February 2021 was aimed at the small Jezero Crater, near the Martian equator. This contains an indisputable delta of a large drainage system that must once have filled the crater with a circular lake; a good place to seek out signs of early life, for which Perseverance is impressively equipped. Shortly afterwards there appeared a Research Article in Science (Scheller, E.L. et al. 2021. Long-term drying of Mars by sequestration of ocean-scale volumes of water in the crust. Science, Online research article eabc7717; DOI: 10.1126/science.abc7717) that examines the fate of the planet’s water. The authors estimate that by 3.0 Ga Mars’s surface had reached its current dry state. They model three processes – supply of water by volcanic degassing and its loss by atmospheric escape and chemical weathering of the Martian surface. The modelling was constrained by the ratio of deuterium (2H) to hydrogen inferred from meteorites believed to come from Mars and estimates by orbiting spacecraft of the current escape of hydrogen from the atmosphere. The latter is too slow to explain the huge loss of water between 4 and 3 Ga and subsequently. Addition of water from Mars’s mantle by volcanoes, even from the gigantic Olympus Mons, was far slower than on Earth because continuous plate tectonics was never achieved on Mars. Chemical weathering of the surface during Mars’s warm-wet phase formed abundant hydrated minerals as well as the hematite that gives the planet its characteristic hue. Water transport before 3 Ga moved clays and hydroxides etc to sedimentary basins, where they have remained undisturbed. On Earth, tectonics recycles sediments and their content of hydrated minerals into the mantle, eventually to regurgitate their water content through volcanism. On Mars, weathering and deposition has irreversibly locked-up between 30 and 99% of Mars’s original endowment of water in its ancient sedimentary crust.

That seems to be a ‘bit of a downer’ for ambitious prospects of terraforming Mars and making it a human escape destination. There are, however, some locations where water may be available in sufficient quantities to support some kind of permanent presence of small colonies, in the form of buried layers of ice, similar to permafrost (see: Ice cliffs on Mars, January 2018)

See also:  Carr, M.H. 2012. The fluvial history of Mars. Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society (A), v. 370, p. 2193-2215; DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2011.0500.

A first for geochronology: ages from Mars

Remote sensing, including mapping of topographic elevation, and the recent exploits of three surface vehicles – the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity Rovers – have provided lots of data for a host of geological interpreters. Producing a time frame for Martian geological and geomorphological events has, understandably, been limited mainly to the use of stratigraphic principles. Various rock units and surface features can be placed in relative time order through simple stratigraphic principles, such as what sits on top of what and which features cut through pre-existing rock units or are masked by them. The most important guide up to now has been interpretation of the relations between impact craters and both rock units and other geomorphological features. The Inner Planets are assumed to have recorded the same variation through time of the frequency and energies of bombardment, and that has been calibrated to some extent by radiometric dating of impact-related rocks returned from the Moon by the crewed Apollo missions. Some detail of relative timings also emerge from some craters cutting earlier ones. The only other source of Martian ages has been from rare meteorites (there are only 114 of them) whose stable isotope compositions are different from those of terrestrial rocks and more common meteorites. By a process of elimination it is surmised that they were flung from Mars as a result of large impacts in the past to land eventually on Earth. The oldest of them date back to 4.5 Ga, much the same as the estimated age of the earliest crystallisation of magmas on Earth.

MOLA colorized relief map of the western hemis...
Colorised relief map of the western hemisphere of Mars, showing Valles Marineris at centre and the four largest volcanoes on the planet (credit: Wikipedia)

But all Martian stratigraphy is still pretty vague by comparison with that here, with only 4 time divisions based on reference to the lunar crater chronology and 3 based on evidence from detailed orbital spectroscopy and Rover data about the alteration of minerals on the Martian surface. Apart from meteorite dates there is very little knowledge of the earliest events, other than Mars must have had a solid, probably crystalline crust made of mainly anhydrous igneous minerals. This was the ‘target’ on which much of the impact record was impressed: by analogy with the Moon it probably spanned the period of the Late Heavy Bombardment from about 4.1 to 3.7 Ga, equivalent to the Eoarchaean on Earth. That period takes its name – Noachian – from Noachis Terra (‘land of Noah’), an intensely cratered, topographically high region of Mars’s southern hemisphere, whose name was given to this large area of high albedo by classical astronomers. Perhaps coincidentally, the Noachian provides the clearest evidence for the former presence of huge amounts of water on the surface of Mars and its erosional power that formed the gigantic Valles Marineris canyon system. The rocky surface that the craters punctured is imaginatively referred to as the pre-Noachian. A major episode of volcanic activity that formed Olympus Mons and other lava domes is named the Hesperian (another legacy of early astronomical nomenclature). It is vaguely ascribed to the period between 3.7 and 3.0 Ga, and followed by three billion years during which erosion and deposition under hyper-arid conditions formed smooth  surfaces with very few craters and rare evidence for the influence of surface water and ice. It is named, inappropriately as it turns out, the Amazonian.

Remote sensing has provided evidence of  episodes of mineral alteration. Clay minerals have been mapped on the pre-Noachian surface, suggesting that aqueous weathering occurred during the earliest times. Sulfates occur in exposed rocks of early Hesperian age, suggesting abundant atmospheric SO2 during this period of massive volcanicity. The last 3.5 billion years saw only the development of the surface iron oxides whose dominance led to Mars being nickname the ‘Red Planet’.

Curiosity Rover's Self Portrait at 'John Klein...
A ‘selfie’ of Curiosity Rover drilling in Gale Crater (credit: Euclid vanderKroew)

A recent paper (Farley, K.A. and 33 others plus the entire Mars Science Laboratory 2014. In Situ Radiometric and Exposure Age Dating of the Martian Surface. Science, v. 343, online publication DOI: 10.1126/science.1247166) suggests that radiometric ages can be measured ‘in the field’, as it were, by instruments carried by the Curiosity rover. How is that done? Curiosity carries a miniature mass spectrometer and other analytical devices. Drilling a rock surface produces a powder which is then heated to almost 900°C for half an hour to drive off all the gases present in the sample. The mass spectrometer can measure isotopes of noble gases, notably 40Ar, 36Ar, 21Ne and 3He. Together with potassium measured by an instrument akin to and XRF, the 40Ar yields a K-Ar age for the rock. A sample drilled from a fine-grained sedimentary in Gale Crater gave an age of 4.2 Ga, most likely that of the detrital feldspars derived from the ancient rocks that form the crater’s wall, rather than an age of sedimentation. The values for 36Ar, 21Ne and 3He provide a means for establishing how long the rock has been exposed at the surface: all three isotopes can be generated by cosmic-ray bombardment. The sample from Gale Crater gave an age of about 78 Ma that probably dates the eventual exposure of the rock by protracted wind erosion.

By themselves, these ages do not tell geologists a great deal about the history of Mars, but if Curiosity makes it through the higher levels of the sediments that once filled Gale Crater – and there is enough power to repeat the mass spectrometry at other levels – it could provide a benchmark for Noachian events. The exposure age, interesting in its own right, also suggests that sediments in the crater have not been exposed to cosmic-ray bombardment for long enough to have destroyed any organic materials that the science community longs for.

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An early magma ocean on Mars?

The division of the lunar surface into two petrological domains – ancient anorthositic highlands and younger basaltic maria – spurred the idea, as long ago as the early 1970s, that the early Moon had a deep ocean of magma at the surface, whose cooling caused fractional crystallization. Low density plagioclase feldspar, dominated by high-calcium anorthite and bytownite, floated to the surface to form the lunar anorthosites leaving a more mafic mantle from which the mare basalts formed by partial melting. The key evidence in support of this hypothesis lies in the rare-earth elements of the two terrains. Because plagioclase feldspar has a much stronger affinity to incorporate the element europium (Eu) than the other REEs, the lunar anorthosites are enriched in Eu compared with its related elements. If the highland anorthosites did form by fractional crystallisation the remaining magma that formed the lunar mantle would be depleted in Eu yet enriched in the remaining REE. Although there are no samples of the Moon’s mantle there are plenty of the mare basalts that formed when it partially melted, probably as a result of huge impacts around 3.8 billion years ago. They should have inherited dominant features of mantle geochemistry, and indeed they do show characteristic depletion of Eu.

Lunar Highlands, near Descartes Crater. Collec...
Lunar Highland anorthosite, collected by the crew of Apollo 16. (credit: Wikipedia)

The giant-impact hypothesis for the Earth-Moon system presupposes that such a cataclysm would have left much of the outer Earth in much the same molten condition and destined to fractionate in the same manner. There are geochemical hints from terrestrial rocks that do support such an idea. An important target for exploration of Mars has been to check if a magma ocean also existed early in its history. Of the various missions in recent years only two have the capacity to shed useful light on the issue: the US Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey. Both orbiters carry more sophisticated remote sensing instruments than any circling the Earth. The first has the hyperspectral Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) that senses visible to short-wave infrared (VNIR) radiation, the other deploys  the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) that captures different parts of the longer wavelength thermal infrared (TIR) spectrum emitted by surface materials. Both allow spectra of surface materials to be reconstructed and compared with the features of known minerals from the Earth and Moon.

Feldspars are highly reflective for the most part of  the VNIR range but show a shallow, broad absorption feature centred on a wavelength of 1.26 micrometres. Such spectra have been detected using CRISM from parts of the Martian surface in the highlands of its southern hemisphere (Carter, J. & Poulet, F. 2013. Ancient plutonic processes on Mars inferred from the detection of possible anorthositic terrains. Nature Geoscience, v. 6, p. 1008-1012). The authors, from Chile and France, acknowledge that the plagioclase-rich rocks occur only in small patches, unlike the vast tracts on the Moon, and also that on Earth anorthosites are known to have formed by a variety of processes from far smaller magma systems than a veritable ocean of molten rock. Feldspars also show spectral features in the TIR, though not so distinctive, both plagioclase and alkali feldspars being very similar. Moreover, THEMIS deploys sensor for only 10 thermal wavebands, compared with 544 on CRISM.  A team of US remote sensers (Wray, J.J. and 8 others 2013. Prolonged magmatic activity on Mars inferred from the detection of felsic rocks. Nature Geoscience, v. 6, p. 1013-1017) used both CRISM and THEMIS data. While noting resemblances to lunar anorthosites, they adopt a more cautious approach to the spectra and prefer the broad, ‘sack’ term ‘felsic rocks’. It seemed possible from their work that feldspar-rich magmas may have formed by partial melting of common andesitic crust noted from the Martian surface: high spatial resolution images of the occurrences bear some resemblance to outcrops of granitic rocks in arid environments on Earth. That is, there may be highly evolved rocks akin to terrestrial continental crust.

The interesting spectral observations on Mars can only be validated by actual rock samples. While rovers still operating on the Martian surface are well able to produce geochemical data that would petrologically characterise most rocks that they encounter, none of them is in a terrain suitable for resolving this particular issue. Yet, coincidentally, a meteorite found in West Africa shows hallmarks of having been blasted from the surface of Mars and sheds useful light on various hypotheses about the Martian crust http://earth-pages.co.uk/2013/11/21/a-glimpse-of-early-martian-crust/. It is a breccia that may represent the soil or regolith that accumulated from early impacts that shattered and melted surface materials, and it is extremely old: zircons yielded an age of 4428 Ma. The clasts set in a fine matrix consist of a variety of igneous rocks, none of which are anorthosites. Some are coarse grained, plutonic rocks containing both alkali feldspars and plagioclase, which match terrestrial monzonites; broadly speaking members of the granite family. Having formed from the ejecta of large impacts, such regolith materials represent the breadth of compositions across the planet and extending deep into its crust. This one suggests that anorthosites may have been rare on early Mars.

A glimpse of early Martian crust

That planetary scientists are eager for chemical information about the rocks of planet Mars is probably unnecessary information, a vast amount of money having been spend to get three spindly vehicles equipped with miniaturized petrographic instruments onto the Martian surface. Meteoriticists might say, ‘Well, we already have some Mars rock in our lab, and we can collect some more from deserts or ablated blue ice in Antarctica’. Four classes of meteorites are alleged to have been flung from Mars by impacts: the allegation is supported by the materials having oxygen isotope proportions that are different from those in rocks from the Earth or Moon.

Another class of meteorite has joined the Martian family, and it it’s a doozy. Found in the northwestern Sahara Desert the rock is a breccia containing a variety of rocks in the form of clasts (Humayun, M. and 10 others 2013. Origin and age of the earliest Martian crust from meteorite NWA7533. Nature  online doi:10.1038/nature12764). In fact four other meteorites looking much the same were found near NWA7533. The bulk of the material is impact melt rock, now devitrified. Some of the clasts are also melt fragments and spherules, while others are fine-grained basalts, broken crystals and, most exciting, coarser igneous rocks rich in alkali and plagioclase feldspar. Their rare-earth element contents, like those of the Earth’s average continental crust, show evidence of fractional crystallization, particularly the removal of plagioclase to produce a marked depletion in the element europium. Slowly cooled and evolved monzonites of this kind are candidates for Martian crustal material. Overall, the texture of the breccia meteorites closely resembles the material that coats the lunar surface – regolith – but it has been lithified rather than remaining a dust.

Meteorite NWA7533 showing a variety of clasts, including light-coloured monzonite (credit: Humayun et al. 2013; doi:10.1038/nature12764)
Meteorite NWA7533 showing a variety of clasts, including light-coloured monzonite (credit: Humayun et al. 2013; doi:10.1038/nature12764)

Highly evolved igneous rocks, broadly speaking those of granitic composition, are the most likely to contain the mineral zircon, and the monzonite clasts yielded five that the US-Australian-French team subjected to U-Pb dating. The results are astonishing. These zircons formed around 4425 Ma ago, in the first hundred million years of the planet’s evolution, at the same time – within statistical error – as did the earliest materials from Earth and the Moon. Other putative Martian meteorites have yielded evidence from their neodymium isotopes that the earliest event there was the formation of a magma ocean, much as postulated for the Earth-Moon system. The latter is widely regarded as having resulted from a mega impact of the proto-Earth with an object roughly the size of Mars. The Martian monzonites may well be products of fractionation from that magma, subsequently excavated and shattered by a series of later, lesser impacts. If it did come from Mars, NWA7533 probably represents part of the early, heavily cratered highlands of the southern hemisphere of that planet.

The four hemispheric views shown above have be...
Full-color global map showing the regions of Mars imaged by the Hubble telescope (credit: Wikipedia)

It will be a long time before rocks can be lifted from the actual surface of Mars and transported back to Earth, and meteorites with a Martian provenance are so rare, that one can foresee a lot of very frustrated planetary petrogeneticists in the near term and a great deal of field work on desert and ice-cap surfaces looking for similar lumps of far-flung regolith.

Are Martian clays magmatic in origin?

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Artist’s Concept of Curiosity’s touchdown(credit: Wikipedia)

The remote detection of spectral features in the infrared that suggest abundant clay minerals on the surface of Mars is the basis for a widely-held view that Mars may once have had moist climatic conditions that encouraged life to form (see The Martian ‘sexy beast’ in September 2012  EPN). The presence of clays, along with suggestive landforms, has also been used to speculate that Mars once harboured long-lived lakes and perhaps even a huge ocean on its northern hemisphere, between 3.7 to 4.1 Ga. It was the clays that pitched the recently arrived Curiosity (aka Mars Exploration)Rover at the Gale crater and its central Aeolis Mons. The latter, also known as Mount Sharp, preserves about 5 km of layered rocks, the lowest of which are clay-rich and hypothesised to be sediments laid down in a lake that filled the crater. Provided Curiosity operates according to plan, we will know soon enough whether or not the layered rocks of Mount Sharp are indeed sediments, but a soon-to-be-published article suggests another explanation than weathering for the production of abundant clay minerals on Mars (Meunier, A. et al. 2012. Magmatic precipitation as a possible origin of Noachian clays on Mars. Nature Geoscience, published online 9 September 2012; DOI: 10.1038/NGEO1572).

Focusing the 100-millimeter Mastcam [detail]
Layered rocks on the flanks of Mount Sharp in Gale crater from Curiosity’s Mastcam (NASA Goddard via Flickr)
The French-US team provides evidence from terrestrial lavas that abundant iron- and magnesium-rich clays, known as smectites, may form at a late stage during crystallization of magma. If magma contains water – and most magmas do – as more and more anhydrous silicates crystallise during cooling water builds up in the remaining liquid. Once silicate crystallisation is complete there remains a watery fluid capable of reacting with some of the silicates to form clay minerals; a process often referred to as pneumatolysis. How much clay is formed depends on the initial water content of the magma. Pneumatolysisoperates on hot lava, whereas weathering occurs at ambient temperature provided the climate is able to support liquid water at the surface. Mars is currently far too cold for that, and ideas of a wet surface environment earlier in the planet’s history demand an explanation for a much warmer climate. Clay minerals do not appear to be present in Mars’s younger rocks, so Meunier and colleagues suggest that as the planet’s mantle evolved early water-rich magmas were gradually replaced by ones with less water: interior Mars was gradually de-gassed and its magmas lost the ability to alter minerals that crystallised from them.

Now, clay minerals are extremely resistant to change except through high-temperature metamorphism. Once formed they can be blown around – Mars has probably always been a very windy place – to end up in aeolian sediments that are plentiful on Mars.  Also, if occasionally water flowed on the surface perhaps by subsurface water venting suddenly, fine-grained pneumatolytic clays would easily be picked up, concentrated as flow speed lessened and deposited in waterlain sedimentary layers.  A dilemma that faces the Curiosity science team is what significance to assign to clays in sediment layers, when they no longer provide unequivocal evidence of weathering.  But will the resistant layers on Mount Sharp turn out to be pneumatolytically altered lava flows?
Note added 28 September 2012: The first scientific triumph of the Curiosity Rover is imagery of sediments in what had been suggested to be an alluvial fan washed into Gale crater. They show gravels with rounded pebbles.

The Martian ‘sexy beast’

Artist’s concept of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) near a canyon on Mars. (Credit: NASA-JPL via Wikipedia)

Why is ’Curiosity’ the latest Mars rover aimed to land at Gale Crater? It seems to have been filled with stratified sediments deposited in the crater over perhaps as long as two billion years after it formed by a meteorite impact. The sediments now occur as a relic of later aeolian erosion at the centre of the crater in the form of a large mound that Curiosity is designed to climb and sample. The big attraction is the detection of clays and sulfate minerals in the sediments using multispectral remote sensing. They clearly suggest the influence of water in the formation of the sediments, hence the suggestion that they are lake sediments. On that assumption, Gale Crater is hoped to be a fruitful site for seeking signs of former biological processes: given the technical circumstances of the mission it is deemed the best site there is on Mars for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory.

Sulfates on Mars have excited geologists enormously, along with their companion clays, because they signify the influence of abundant acid water in the breakdown of Martian primary igneous rocks from which the sediments have undoubtedly been derived. Their formation is undoubtedly the geoscientific ‘sexy beast’ of the last four or five years. Given multi-channel remotely sensed data – and Mars labs are awash with them from several previous missions – sulfates are easy to detect from their distinctive reflectance spectra so there has been abundant pay-back for geologists involved with the Red Planet. But there is water and there is…water. It is hoped to be proved that the depositional medium was standing water or at least abundant subsurface aqueous fluids, which may have lingered for long enough for living organisms to have formed. But there is a possibility that sulfates can form, and so too clays, by superficial weathering processes beneath a humid atmosphere.

English: This oblique, southward-looking view ...
An oblique view of Gale crater showing the landing site and the mound of layered rocks that NASA’s Curiosity rover will investigate. The landing site is outlined in yellow. (Credit: NASA-JPL via Wikipedia)

Erwin Dehouck and  team of French geochemists set out experimentally to recreate conceivable atmospheric and climatic conditions from Mars’s early history to mimic weathering processes (Dehouck, E. et al. 2012. Evaluating the role of sulfide-weathering in the formation of sulfates or carbonates on Mars. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, v. 90, p. 47-63). The experiment involved liquid water and hydrogen peroxide (detected in Mars’s present atmosphere and probably produced photochemically from water vapour) in contact with a CO2 atmosphere.  Martian surface conditions were simulated by evaporation of H2O and H2O2 to mix with dominant CO2, which allowed ‘dew’ to form on the experimental samples. The samples consisted of ground up olivine and pyroxene, important mineral constituents of basalt – feldspar was not used. – mixed with the iron sulfide pyrrhotite, commonly found in terrestrial basalts and meteorites judged to have come from Mars. Samples of each pure mineral and mixtures with the sulfide were left in the apparatus for four years and then analysed in detail.

Even in such a short exposure the silicate-sulfide mixtures reacted to produce sulfate minerals –hexahydrite (MgSO4_6H2O), gypsum (CaSO4_2H2O) and jarosite( KFe3 (OH)6(SO4)2), together with goethite (FeOOH) and hematite (Fe2O3). Without the presence of sulfides, the silicate minerals barely broke down under the simulated Martian conditions but did produce traces of magnesium carbonate. The sulfate bearing assemblages look very like those reported from many locations on Mars. The acid conditions produced by weathering of sulfides to yield sulfate ions are incompatible with preservation of carbonates, as the experiment indicates. However, there are reports of Martian sediments that do contain abundant carbonate minerals.

The researchers’ conclusions are interesting: “These results raise doubts on the need for a global acidic event to produce the sulfate-bearing assemblages, suggest that regional sequestration of sulfate deposits is due to regional differences in sulfide content of the bedrock, and pave the way for reevaluating the likelihood that early sediments preserved biosignatures from the earliest times”. Weathering by dew formation seems quite adequate to match existing observations.

A mighty sag or a big wrench for Mars

MOLA colorized relief map of the western hemis...
Colour-coded relief map of the Thatsis bulge on Mars, with Valles Marineris at left centre (Credit: Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA, via Wikipedia)

In the Solar System topographic features don’t come larger than Valles Marineris on Mars. At between 5 to 10 kilometres deep and extending along a fifth of the planet’s circumference, it makes the Grand Canyon and The Gorge of the Nile look puny.

The base and margins of this stupendous valley contains all manner of evidence for erosion, huge landslips and signs of collapse into voids in Mars’s crust. Much of the erosion on Mars seems to have stemmed from catastrophic floods several billion years ago, though whether they were all of water or if some were volcanic in origin is being debated (Leverington, D.W. 2011. A volcanic origin for the outflow channels of Mars: Key evidence and major implications. Geomorphology, v. 132, p. 51-75 http://www.webpages.ttu.edu/dleverin/leverington_mars_outflow_channels_geomorphology_2011.pdf  , but see http://www.universetoday.com/94367/did-water-or-lava-carve-the-outflow-channels-on-mars/)

It is difficult to imagine anything other than some kind of fault control over the almost straight, roughly east-west trend of Vales Marineris, but the scale suggests, again, an unmatched scale of tectonics. It has long been thought that the massive canyon resulted from extensional rifting that created a major weakness etched out by later erosion and/or collapse into huge subsurface voids in the crust. Yet there is little sign of commensurately large faults, through there are some. But the structure is an integral part of yet another superlative. It is on the eastern flank of the mighty Tharsis bulge on which several humongous volcanoes, including Mons Olympus, developed: perhaps there is a causal link between the two dominating features.

Jeffrey Andrews-Hanna of the Colorado School of Mines in the US has tried to model the bulge-chasm pair, coming to the conclusion that there is little sign of major extension. The finale of his study zeroes-in on the possibility of dominant subsidence producing the structure (Andrews-Hanna, J.C. 2012. The formation of Valles Marineris:  3. Trough formation through super-isostasy, stress, sedimentation, and subsidence.  Journal of Geophysical Research, v. 117, E06002, doi:10.1029/2012JE004059).

In this model, the Tharsis bulge and its associated volcanic province rose so high that on the scale of the planet it must have created a large positive gravitational anomaly. This remains for the most part, but in the Valles Marineris region the crust is now either in isostatic balance or has large negative gravity anomalies, complicated by the fact that the very carving of the canyon system must have resulted in some uplift through unloading. For a while the whole bulge was supported in this gravitationally unstable state by the strength of the Martian lithosphere, and most of it is still in a state of disequilibrium.

Andrews-Hanna’s novel view is that a small amount of extension allowed residual magma to rise in linear zone along the eventual length of Valles Marineris as dykes. The magmas and their heating effect reduced the strength of the lithosphere, locally removing support for the huge load, which subsided. By creating greater slope on the surface of Tharsis the subsidence would have become a focus for both erosion and sedimentation, the increased sedimentary load adding to the subsidence to give the present stupendous depth of the canyons and chasms.

Polski: NASA World Wind - Mars (MOLA Shaded el...
Simulated oblique view of the topography of Valles Marineris looking westwards (Credit: Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA, via Wikipedia)

But this isn’t the only model for the canyon system (Yin, A. Structural analysis of the Valles Marineris fault zone: Possible evidence for large-scale strike-slip faulting on Mars. Lithosphere, v. 4 doi:10.1130/L192.1). An Yin of the University of California used a combination of remote sensing data from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey to perform detailed lithological and structural mapping  along Valles Marineris. What emerged were several  fault zones up to 2000 km long. Instead of an expected extensional sense of movement they are strike-slip faults, with displacements of the order of 100 km in a left-lateral sense. Yin’s model is that the canyon system bean as a zone of transtensional  deformation: very different from that of Andrews-Hanna. It also begs the question of the underlying tectonic processes, because strike-slip zone on Earth are usually associated with distributed stress from plate tectonics.