Rock Abrasion as Seen by the MSL Curiosity Rover: Insights on Physical Weathering on Mars
Abstract:Mars is a dry planet, with actively blowing sand in many regions. In the absence of stable liquid water and an active hydrosphere, rates of chemical weathering are slow, such that aeolian abrasion is a dominant agent of landscape modification where sand is present and winds above threshold occur at sufficient frequency. Reflecting this activity, ventifacts, rocks that have been abraded by windborne particles, and wind-eroded outcrops, are common. They provide invaluable markers of the Martian wind record and insight into climate and landscape modification.
Ventifacts are distributed along the traverse of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover. They contain one or more diagnostic features and textures: Facets, keels, basal sills, elongated pits, scallops/flutes, grooves, rock tails, and lineations. Keels at the junction of facets are sharp enough to pose a hazard MSL’s wheels in some areas. Geomorphic and textural patterns on outcrops indicate retreat of windward faces. Moonlight Valley and other depressions are demarcated by undercut walls and scree boulders, with the valley interiors containing fewer rocks, most of which show evidence for significant abrasion. Together, this suggests widening and undercutting of the valley walls, and erosion of interior rocks, by windblown sand.
HiRISE images do not show any dark sand dunes in the traverse so far, in contrast to the large dune field to the south that is migrating up to 2 m per year. In addition, ChemCam shows that the rock Bathurst has a rind rich in mobile elements that would be removed in an abrading environment. This indicates that rock abrasion was likely more dominant in the past, a hypothesis consistent with rapid scarp retreat as suggested by the cosmogenic noble gases in Yellowknife Bay. Ventifacts and evidence for bedrock abrasion have also been found at the Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity sites, areas, like the Curiosity traverse so far, that lack evidence for current high sand fluxes. Yardangs are also common on the planet, regardless of whether local sand is mobile. This suggest that abrasion on Mars is an episodic process driven by the passage of sand in which rock retreat rates, based on fluxes of current active dunes, may reach 10s of microns per year. Such a process has acted, over long time scales, to imprint upon the surface a record of sand activity.