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Unusual rocks on the rim of Concepción crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University.


More Martian Enigmas
Sep 24, 2010

New information from the surface of Mars incites additional questions about its formation.

The Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity have been rolling across the face of the Red Planet for more than six years. Opportunity was launched on July 7, 2003. After a six month journey, it bounced to a landing inside a newly developed airbag system that cushioned its impact with the surface of Meridiani Planum. Opportunity was meant for no more than a six month sojourn in the frozen desert of Mars, but the data it gathered compelled NASA managers to continue its mission indefinitely.

During its many years of travel, Opportunity has provided a wealth of information about the topography of Mars, as well as an analysis of its chemical composition. The surface of Mars appears to be rich in silicon dioxide, otherwise known as quartzite, and in various iron oxides, especially hematite.

However, the trillions of tiny hematite spherules covering the landing site, labeled "blueberries" by mission team members, became one of the first mysteries uncovered by Opportunity. How they were formed continues to elude planetary scientists. They were not called blueberries because of their color, since hematite is a dull gray, but because they resembled blueberries in a muffin. Most of the sandstone rocks observed by the rover are filled with them.

Once again, the MER has discovered "strange stuff" on Marian rocks. According to principle investigator Steve Squyres of Cornell University, Opportunity has been studying a 10 meter crater known as Concepción for the past six weeks. An unknown dark gray material covers some of the rocks near the crater's rim. The rocks also reveal compressed layers of blueberries in between thin layers of a different mineral.

Squyres: "It's possible that when you melt this rock, the sandstone melts before the blueberries do, leaving intact blueberries as part of a melt layer. As an alternative, we know that this type of rock has fractures and that the sandstone can dissolve. Long ago, water flowing through fractures could have dissolved the sandstone and liberated blueberries that fell down into the fracture and packed together."

Rather than melted rocks caused by a meteor strike, perhaps there is another explanation that can account for the crater, the hematite nodules, and the vast fields of iron oxide dust gathered into immobile dune-like shapes that lie on top of hard quartzite slabs.

Mars is largely composed of iron and silicon, with massive quantities of oxygen bound into the soils and bedrock. The atmosphere on Mars is of such low density it is sometimes described as standing on top of a mountain six-times higher than Everest, so it lacks the ability to aggressively attack the Martian lithosphere.

On Earth, water vapor in the atmosphere forms a weak carbonic acid solution when it mixes with CO2, so that helps to wear away the rocks. On Mars, such erosion is impossible for several obvious reasons, not the least of which is that there is no open water on Mars or in its atmosphere.

The presence of iron oxide in several different forms indicates that something not taking place on any large scale today did take place at some time in the past. When that past imposed its influence on Mars depends on which of many suppositions are considered. Most Mars research groups speculate that there was once a dense, oxygen-rich atmosphere that allowed for the “rusting” of iron in its crust to take place.

Others have said that there were oceans of open water on the surface that helped to form the hematite nodules covering nearly a whole hemisphere (perhaps more). Whatever the source, Mars has hematite dunes a kilometer high, giant cracks that go on for hundreds of kilometers with their bottoms covered in hematite ripples, and seas of hematite dust tens of meters deep swallowing craters a hundred kilometers in diameter

In previous Picture of the Day articles about the Martian blueberries, it was suggested that there might have been some kind of elemental transmutation on the Martian surface. Electrical energy, flowing underground through selectively conductive materials, can produce many effects, among them the change of one element into another.

In the picture at the top of the page is a sample of what other effects might be observed. The striated and layered quartzite is sharp-edged and broken into angular polygons. The fissures running through them are filled with hematite dust. Close up images of the layered chunks show thousands of raised nubbins all over the exterior.

When electric currents of gigajoule magnitude explode through rock strata they blast out the material, forming great trenches. The debris falls back, creating piles of distorted and half-melted minerals with no sign of how they could have been eroded into their present appearance.

Conventional theories do not consider elemental transmutation, so there are few avenues of experimentation left open. Precipitation or chemical recombination from impact events appear to be the main arguments put forward by Mars research scientists, so their theories about its evolution are often inconsistent.

Stephen Smith




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