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2014 Annual Science Report

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Reporting  |  SEP 2013 – DEC 2014

Project 4: Vistas of Early Mars: In Preparation for Sample Return

Project Summary

To understand the history of life in the solar system requires knowledge of how hydrous minerals form on planetary surfaces, and the role minerals may play in the development of potential life forms. The minerals hematite and jarosite have been identified on Mars and presented as in situ evidence for aqueous activity. This project seeks to understand (i) the conditions required for jarosite and hematite formation and preservation on planetary surfaces, and (ii) the conditions under which their “radiometric clocks” can be reset (e.g., during changes in environmental conditions such as temperature). By investigating the kinetics of noble gases in minerals, known to occur on Mars and Earth, we will be prepared to analyze and properly interpret ages measured on samples from future Mars sample return missions.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
0 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

Since the last project report we continued the development of noble gas protocols to determine the timing and rates of processes relevant to astrobiology. Experiments were designed and conducted to analyze noble gases trapped in common minerals found in our solar system, including hydrous phases (micas), pyroxene, feldspars, and quartz. We assessed the potential of minerals to record the timing of surface and atmospheric conditions that can be used to characterize past habitable environments (e.g., on early Earth, Mars). Major findings include:

1) Atmospheric Ar and Ne can be trapped in minerals crystallized at mantle depths on Earth (Baldwin and Das, 2013 and submitted). Results indicate that on Earth the atmosphere is recycled to mantle depths in subduction zones (c.f., the deep carbon cycle).

2) The timing of fluid and rock interaction during early stages of Earth’s evolution was further investigated through noble gas experiments on hydrothermal quartz collected from Jack Hills, Australia. These were difficult, time-consuming experiments to perform since quartz generally contains a negligible amount of K, yielding a very low signal for 39Ar for mass spectrometric measurements. Therefore a relatively large quantity of sample material was required for analysis to ensure sufficient argon could be accurately and precisely measured in step heat experiments. Initial results (JHD1C) yielded a saddle-shaped spectrum with minimum 40Ar/39Ar ages ranging from 1.40 to 1.63 Ga. The low temperature (300°- 800° C) and highest temperature (1200°-1710°C) steps yielded results that can be interpreted in terms of the release of Cl–rich fluid inclusions. Additional noble gas experiments on Jack Hills quartz samples are in progress.

3) We assessed the potential of low-mass samples, collected by sample return missions to airless planetary objects (e.g., Moon, Mars, asteroids), to reveal planetary surface processes. A manuscript was prepared that reports 40Ar/39Ar and cosmic ray exposure ages of plagioclase rich lithic fragments from Apollo 17 regolith. While the 40Ar/39Ar ages agreed with previously reported ages for norite samples at this site, variations in cosmic ray exposure ages are interpreted to reflect gardening of the lunar surface. The effects of solar wind implantation were also documented in one sample.

    Suzanne Baldwin
    Project Investigator

    Bruce Watson

    Jayesh Das

    John Delano

    Objective 2.1
    Mars exploration.

    Objective 3.1
    Sources of prebiotic materials and catalysts

    Objective 7.1
    Biosignatures to be sought in Solar System materials