Curiosity confirms origins of Martian meteorites

Oct. 16, 2013 — Earth’s most eminent emissary to Mars has just proven that those rare Martian visitors that sometimes drop in on Earth — a.k.a. Martian meteorites — really are from the Red Planet. A key new measurement of Mars’ atmosphere by NASA’s Curiosity rover provides the most definitive evidence yet of the origins of Mars meteorites while at the same time providing a way to rule out Martian origins of other meteorites.The new measurement is a high-precision count of two forms of argon gas — Argon-36 and Argon-38-accomplished by the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument on Curiosity. These lighter and heavier forms, or isotopes, of argon exist naturally throughout the solar system. But on Mars the ratio of light to heavy argon is skewed because a lot of that planet’s original atmosphere was lost to space, with the lighter form of argon being taken away more readily because it rises to the top of the atmosphere more easily and requires less energy to escape. That’s left the Martian atmosphere relatively enriched in the heavier Argon-38.Years of past analyses by Earth-bound scientists of gas bubbles trapped inside Martian meteorites had already narrowed the Martian argon ratio to between 3.6 and 4.5 (that is 3.6 to 4.5 atoms of Argon-36 to every one Argon-38) with the supposed Martian “atmospheric” value near four. Measurements by NASA’s Viking landers in the 1970’s put the Martian atmospheric ratio in the range of four to seven. The new SAM direct measurement on Mars now pins down the correct argon ratio at 4.2.”We really nailed it,” said Sushil Atreya of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, the lead author of a paper reporting the finding today in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. “This direct reading from Mars settles the case with all Martian meteorites,” he said.One of the reasons scientists have been so interested in the argon ratio in Martian meteorites is that it was — before Curiosity — the best measure of how much atmosphere Mars has lost since the planet’s earlier, wetter, warmer days billions of years ago. …

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New explanation for odd double-layer Martian craters

Aug. 5, 2013 — Brown planetary geologists have an explanation for the formation of more than 600 “double-layer ejecta” (DLE) craters on Mars. The Martian surface was covered with a thick sheet of ice at impact. Ejected material would later slide down steep crater sides and across the ice, forming a second layer.Geologists from Brown University have developed a promising new explanation for a mysterious type of crater on the surface on Mars.Double-layered ejecta craters or DLEs, like other craters, are surrounded by debris excavated by an impactor. What makes DLEs different is that the debris forms two distinct layers — a large outer layer with a smaller inner layer sitting on top. These distinctive craters were first documented in data returned from the Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s, and scientists have been trying ever since to figure out how the double-layer pattern forms.A new study by Brown graduate student David Kutai Weiss and James W. Head, professor of geological science, suggests that DLEs are the result of impacts onto a surface that was covered by a layer of glacial ice tens of meters thick.”Recent discoveries by planetary geoscientists at Brown and elsewhere have shown that the climate of Mars has varied in the past,” Head said. “During these times, ice from the polar caps is redistributed into the mid-latitudes of Mars as a layer about 50 meters thick, in the same place that we see that the DLEs have formed. This made us think that this ice layer could be part of the explanation for the formation of the unusual DLE second layer,” Head said.In the scenario Weiss and Head lay out, the impact blasts through the ice layer, spitting rock and other ejecta out onto the surrounding ice. But because that ejected material sits on slippery ice, it doesn’t all stay put. …

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‘International beam team’ solves Martian meteorite-age puzzle

July 24, 2013 — By directing energy beams at tiny crystals found in a Martian meteorite, a Western University-led team of geologists has proved that the most common group of meteorites from Mars is almost 4 billion years younger than many scientists had believed — resolving a long-standing puzzle in Martian science and painting a much clearer picture of the Red Planet’s evolution that can now be compared to that of habitable Earth.In a paper published today in the journal Nature, lead author Desmond Moser, an Earth Sciences professor from Western’s Faculty of Science, Kim Tait, Curator, Mineralogy, Royal Ontario Museum, and a team of Canadian, U.S., and British collaborators show that a representative meteorite from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)’s growing Martian meteorite collection, started as a 200 million-year-old lava flow on Mars, and contains an ancient chemical signature indicating a hidden layer deep beneath the surface that is almost as old as the solar system.The team, composed of scientists from ROM, the University of Wyoming, UCLA, and the University of Portsmouth, also discovered crystals that grew while the meteorite was launched from Mars towards Earth, allowing them to narrow down the timing to less than 20 million years ago while also identifying possible launch locations on the flanks of the supervolcanoes at the Martian equator.More details can be found in their paper titled, “Solving the Martian meteorite age conundrum using micro-baddeleyite and launch-generated zircon.”Moser and his group at Western’s Zircon & Accessory Phase Laboratory (ZAPLab), one of the few electron nanobeam dating facilities in the world, determined the growth history of crystals on a polished surface of the meteorite. The researchers combined a long-established dating method (measuring radioactive uranium/lead isotopes) with a recently developed gently-destructive, mineral grain-scale technique at UCLA that liberates atoms from the crystal surface using a focused beam of oxygen ions.Moser estimates that there are roughly 60 Mars rocks dislodged by meteorite impacts that are now on Earth and available for study, and that his group’s approach can be used on these and a much wider range of heavenly bodies.”Basically, the inner solar system is our oyster. We have hundreds of meteorites that we can apply this technique to, including asteroids from beyond Mars to samples from the Moon,” says Moser, who credits the generosity of the collectors that identify this material and make it available for public research.

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How Mars’ atmosphere got so thin: Reports detail Curiosity clues to atmosphere’s past

July 18, 2013 — A pair of new papers report measurements of the Martian atmosphere’s composition by NASA’s Curiosity rover, providing evidence about loss of much of Mars’ original atmosphere.Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite of laboratory instruments inside the rover has measured the abundances of different gases and different isotopes in several samples of Martian atmosphere. Isotopes are variants of the same chemical element with different atomic weights due to having different numbers of neutrons, such as the most common carbon isotope, carbon-12, and a heavier stable isotope, carbon-13.SAM checked ratios of heavier to lighter isotopes of carbon and oxygen in the carbon dioxide that makes up most of the planet’s atmosphere. Heavy isotopes of carbon and oxygen are both enriched in today’s thin Martian atmosphere compared with the proportions in the raw material that formed Mars, as deduced from proportions in the sun and other parts of the solar system. This provides not only supportive evidence for the loss of much of the planet’s original atmosphere, but also a clue to how the loss occurred.”As atmosphere was lost, the signature of the process was embedded in the isotopic ratio,” said Paul Mahaffy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. He is the principal investigator for SAM and lead author of one of the two papers about Curiosity results in the July 19 issue of the journal Science.Other factors also suggest Mars once had a much thicker atmosphere, such as evidence of persistent presence of liquid water on the planet’s surface long ago even though the atmosphere is too scant for liquid water to persist on the surface now. The enrichment of heavier isotopes measured in the dominant carbon-dioxide gas points to a process of loss from the top of the atmosphere — favoring loss of lighter isotopes — rather than a process of the lower atmosphere interacting with the ground.Curiosity measured the same pattern in isotopes of hydrogen, as well as carbon and oxygen, consistent with a loss of a substantial fraction of Mars’ original atmosphere. Enrichment in heavier isotopes in the Martian atmosphere has previously been measured on Mars and in gas bubbles inside meteorites from Mars. Meteorite measurements indicate much of the atmospheric loss may have occurred during the first billion years of the planet’s 4.6-billion-year history. The Curiosity measurements reported this week provide more precise measurements to compare with meteorite studies and with models of atmospheric loss.The Curiosity measurements do not directly measure the current rate of atmospheric escape, but NASA’s next mission to Mars, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN), will do so. “The current pace of the loss is exactly what the MAVEN mission now scheduled to launch in November of this year is designed to determine,” Mahaffy said.The new reports describe analysis of Martian atmosphere samples with two different SAM instruments during the initial 16 weeks of the rover’s mission on Mars, which is now in its 50th week. …

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Martian clay contains chemical implicated in the origin of life, astrobiologists find

June 10, 2013 — Researchers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa NASA Astrobiology Institute (UHNAI) have discovered high concentrations of boron in a Martian meteorite. When present in its oxidized form (borate), boron may have played a key role in the formation of RNA, one of the building blocks for life.The work was published on June 6 in PLOS ONE.The Antarctic Search for Meteorites team found the Martian meteorite used in this study in Antarctica during its 2009-2010 field season. The minerals it contains, as well as its chemical composition, clearly show that it is of Martian origin.Using the ion microprobe in the W. M. Keck Cosmochemistry Laboratory at UH, the team was able to analyze veins of Martian clay in the meteorite. After ruling out contamination from Earth, they determined boron abundances in these clays are over ten times higher than in any previously measured meteorite.”Borates may have been important for the origin of life on Earth because they can stabilize ribose, a crucial component of RNA. In early life RNA is thought to have been the informational precursor to DNA,” said James Stephenson, a UHNAI postdoctoral fellow.RNA may have been the first molecule to store information and pass it on to the next generation, a mechanism crucial for evolution. Although life has now evolved a sophisticated mechanism to synthesize RNA, the first RNA molecules must have been made without such help. One of the most difficult steps in making RNA nonbiologically is the formation of the RNA sugar component, ribose. Previous laboratory tests have shown that without borate the chemicals available on the early Earth fail to build ribose. …

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