Mars turned red due to grinding rocks, not water

Saturday, September 19, 2009

LONDON - Recent laboratory studies have shown that Mars is not red due to the rocks being rusted by the water that once flooded the planet, but due to the ongoing grinding of surface rocks, which forms the red dust.

These findings, which open up the debate about the history of water on Mars and whether it has ever been habitable, have been presented at the European Planetary Science Congress by Dr. Jonathan Merrison.

“Mars should really look blackish, between its white polar caps, because most of the rocks at mid-latitudes are basalt. For decades, we assumed that the reddish regions on Mars are related to the water-rich early history of the planet and that, at least in some areas, water-bearing heavily oxidized iron minerals are present,” said Dr. Merrison, of the Aarhus Mars Simulation Laboratory, Denmark.

Fine red dust covers Mars’s surface and is even present in the planet’s atmosphere, dominating the weather and sometimes becoming so thick that it plunges the planet into darkness.

Even though dust is ubiquitous, we do not fully understand its physical, chemical, and geological properties.

In their recent laboratory study, scientists at the Mars Simulation Laboratory have pioneered a novel technique to simulate the sand transport on Mars.

They hermetically sealed sand (quartz) samples in glass flasks and mechanically “tumbled” them for several months, turning each flask ten million times.

After gently tumbling pure quartz sand for seven months, almost 10 percent of the sand had been reduced to dust.

When scientists added powdered magnetite, an iron oxide present in Martian basalt, to the flasks, they were surprised to see it getting redder as the flasks were tumbled.

“Reddish-orange material deposits, which resemble mineral mantles known as desert varnish, started appearing on the tumbled flasks. Subsequent analysis of the flask material and dust has shown that the magnetite was transformed into the red mineral hematite, through a completely mechanical process without the presence of water at any stage of this process,” said Dr. Merrison.

The scientists suspect that, as the quartz sand grains are tumbled around, they get quickly eroded and an alteration of minerals through contact ensues.

The first experiments show that this process occurs not only in air, but also in a dried carbon dioxide (CO2) atmosphere, that is, in conditions that perfectly resemble those occurring on Mars.

It may also imply that the reddish Martian dust is geologically recent. (ANI)

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