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    Clays Force A Rethink Of The Water History Of Mars
    By News Staff | December 21st 2012 01:03 AM | Print | E-mail | Track Comments

    A new study indicates that clay minerals, formed when water is present for long periods of time, cover a larger portion of Mars than previously thought. Clays were in some of the rocks studied by Opportunity when it landed at Eagle crater in 2004. The rover only detected acidic sulfates and has since driven about 22 miles to Endeavour Crater and clay minerals have been detected using a spectroscopic analysis from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The clays also exist in the Meridiani plains that Opportunity rolled over as it trekked toward its current position. 


    The clay signatures near Eagle crater are very weak, especially compared to those along the rim and inside Endeavour crater. Wray believes clays could have been more plentiful in the past, but Mars' volcanic, acidic history has probably eliminated some of them.

    The clay signatures near Eagle crater are very weak, especially compared to those along the rim and inside Endeavour crater. Wray believes clays could have been more plentiful in the past, but Mars' volcanic, acidic history has probably eliminated some of them.

    "It's not a surprise that Opportunity didn't find clays while exploring," said Assistant Professor James Wray of Georgia Tech. "We didn't know they existed on Mars until after the rover arrived. Opportunity doesn't have the same tools that have proven so effective for detecting clays from orbit."

    "It was also surprising to find clays in geologically younger terrain than the sulfates," said Eldar Noe Dobrea of the Planetary Science Institute. Current theories of Martian geological history suggest that clays, a product of aqueous alteration, actually formed early on when the planet's waters were more alkaline. As the water acidified due to volcanism, the dominant alteration mineralogy became sulfates. "This forces us to rethink our current hypotheses of the history of water on Mars," he added. 

    Even though Opportunity has reached an area believed to contain rich clay deposits, the odds are still stacked against it. Opportunity was supposed to survive for only three months. It's still going strong nine years later, but the rover's two mineralogical instruments don't work anymore. Instead, Opportunity must take pictures of rocks with its panoramic camera and analyze targets with a spectrometer to try and determine the composition of rock layers.

    "So far, we've only been able to identify areas of clay deposits from orbit," said Wray. "If Opportunity can find a sample and give us a closer look, we should be able to determine how the rock was formed, such as in a deep lake, shallow pond or volcanic system."

    As for the other rover on the other side of Mars, Curiosity's instruments are better equipped to search for signs of past or current conditions for habitable life, thanks in part to Opportunity. Wray is a member of Curiosity's science team.

    Published in Geophysical Research Letters.