These Mineral Veins Trace the Flow of Water on Ancient Mars

By Kiona Smith-Strickland on at

The mineral veins that crisscross through the rock around the ridge in the above image-stitch tell an important story about Mars’s ancient past. So of course the ever reliable Curiosity rover shot them with a laser.

Related: NASA Mars Scientists Answer Burning Questions About Flowing Water Discovery

Scientists have named this scenic spot on the lower slope of Mount Sharp “Garden City”. To give you a sense of scale, the rock outcrop ridge in centre frame is about a metre tall. A few billion years ago, groundwater flowed through cracks in the bedrock here, carrying minerals it had picked up along the way.

When the water dried up, it left behind the minerals it had carried, creating veins of mineral that filled in the old cracks in the bedrock. The bedrock at Garden City has eroded over time, but the mineral deposits are harder and thus more able to resist erosion. As a result, the bedrock is slowly pulling away to reveal traces of the water that once flowed here.

These Mineral Veins Trace the Flow of Water on Ancient MarsA close-up of the Garden City mineral veins, about 2 feet across. Image: NASA

What’s in the Water?

The mineral deposits at Garden City could tell scientists how much water flowed in the area a few billion years ago and what kinds of chemicals it carried. That could help us better understand what kind of environment ancient Mars might have offered for microbial life, if it ever existed there.

To help scientists understand the chemical makeup of the Garden City veins, Curiosity zapped 17 of them with its on-board laser. It’s part of an instrument called Chemistry & Camera, or ChemCam. When Curiosity fires its laser at a rock, it excites electrons in the rock, which creates a flash of light. By recording the spectral signature of that flash, Curiosity can discover the chemical composition of the rock.

It turns out that water from several different sources flowed through the rock at Garden City at different times. Several of the older veins have newer veins deposited basically on top of them, where water from a new source flowed across the minerals left behind by an older flow. Each vein contained its own unique set of minerals: some are rich in iron, while others contain calcium sulphate, magnesium sulphate, or fluorine.

“These fluids could be from different sources at different times,” said Curiosity science team member Diana Blaney in a press release. “This could be the result of distinct fluids migrating through from a distance, carrying chemical signatures from where they’d been.” Blaney and her colleagues presented their research on Garden City last week at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Science [NASA]

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