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Water on Mars: Minerals in Martian Meteorites Provide New Clues

Minerals from Martian meteorites appear to be indicating that the planet once had an abundance of water, making Mars much wetter than what scientists have assumed so far. The new findings are published in Nature Communications.

Mars. Photo credits: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, U.S. Geological Survey.

The mineral concealed in the meteorites was originally deemed to be evidence of a dry Martian history. However, new findings show that it might have initially consisted of hydrogen, which would possibly mean that the opposite was true: that Mars once had an abundance of water. These conclusions were made after a team of scientists from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) manufactured a synthetic form of whitlockite, a mineral containing hydrogen.

The whitlockite samples were subjected to shock-compression procedures to simulate the ejection of meteorites from the red planet. Thereafter, their microscopic composition was studied via X-ray experiments. The results show that the mineral would be dehydrated in the aftermath of the shocks, resulting in the formation of a mineral found in Martian meteorites, but not on Earth, known as merrillite. If the merrilite found on Mars was once whitlockite, previous assumptions relating to water on Mars would not be accurate. One of the researchers, Martin Kunz, explains that their findings will assist them in understanding the amount of water on Mars, and if this water came from the red planet itself or from external sources like meteorites.

“The only missing link now is to prove that (merrillite) had, in fact, really been Martian whitlockite before,” Tschauner said. “We have to go back to the real meteorites and see if there had been traces of water.”

Furthermore, this experiment could resolve another question: is there, or has there ever been, life on Mars? Answering it could be possible because whitlockite is soluble in water, and it consists of a building block of life on Earth, the element phosphorus. It is to be noted that other teams of researchers have come up with evidence of liquid water flowing on Mars now. But, no proof of life on the planet has been found; perhaps, if water was once abundant on it, life did flourish there?

“The overarching question here is about water on Mars and its early history on Mars: Had there ever been an environment that enabled a generation of life on Mars?” says UNLV’s Oliver Tschauner.

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