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As humans vie to become an interplanetary species, their first destination in the cosmic neighbourhood will be Mars. Rovers trundling on the ground are readying the foundation as they delve into the geological history of the Red Planet. Observations by two biologists on wheels hint at the violent volcanic past of the neighbouring planet.
A team of researchers from the Arizona State University has identified ignimbrite, an igneous and sedimentary rock that forms as the result of cataclysmic explosive eruptions from immense volcanic calderas. Analysing data from two Mars missions, the team studied enigmatic olivine-rich bedrock in Gusev crater and in and around Jezero crater, where the Perseverance rover is currently looking for signs of ancient microbial life.
The findings published in the journal Icarus, state that the bedrock is recognized as possible explosive volcanic deposits, but the nature of their eruption is poorly constrained, limiting understanding of what may be a widespread volcanic process on early Mars. “If correct, this phenomenon may be applied to other occurrences on Mars and indicate a style of volcanism more common in its early history,” the paper read.
The researchers used data from Nasa’s Spirit rover, which is nearly 16 years old, and from the Perseverance rover that is operating today. The location of both these rovers on Mars has the highest abundance of olivine yet identified on the planet. The similarities in composition and morphology of the widely separated olivine-rich rocks had not been investigated previously.
Now it appears that they formed in a similar way.
Olivine is a silicate mineral that comes from magma generated in the mantle of Mars, similar to how it is formed on Earth.
“There are lots of ideas for the origin of olivine-rich bedrock that covers large portions of a region called Nili Fossae, which includes Jezero crater. It’s a debate that’s been going on for nearly 20 years,” Steve Ruff of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration said in a statement.
Ruff examined mosaics of images from the Mars rover Spirit’s Microscopic Imager and noticed rocks with an unusual texture. He then compared them to images of rocks on Earth and came across some volcanic rocks with textures that looked remarkably similar to those in the mosaics from Mars.
“That was a eureka moment. I was seeing the same kind of textures in the rocks of Gusev crater as those in a very specific kind of volcanic rock found here on Earth,” he added.
The images were that of ignimbrite that forms as the result of flows of pyroclastic ash, pumice, and blocks from the largest volcanic explosions known on Earth. These deposits then slowly cool, leading to intricate networks of fractures known as cooling joints, which form as the thick piles of ash and pumice contract. Researchers identified similar fracture patterns in the olivine-rich bedrock deposits on Mars.
Ignimbrites, on Earth, are found in Yellowstone National Park in the Western U.S that date back to 2.1 million years old. “No one had previously suggested ignimbrites as an explanation for olivine-rich bedrock on Mars, and it’s possible that this is the kind of rock that the Perseverance rover has been driving around on and sampling for the past year,” Ruff said.
The new study indicates how violent churnings in the ground shaped the planet that we see today and the findings could pave way for a deeper understanding of our planetary neighbourhood.
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