Investigating the Habitability and Preservation Potential of Two Aqueous Settings in Gusev Crater, Mars

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 12:05 PM
Steven W Ruff1, Jack D Farmer2, Ralph Milliken3, Paul B Niles4, Fabrizio Alfano1, Amanda B Clarke1, Michael D Kraft1 and Craig J Hardgrove1, (1)Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, United States, (2)Arizona State Univ, Tempe, AZ, United States, (3)Brown University, Providence, RI, United States, (4)NASA Johnson SFC, Houston, TX, United States
The Spirit rover was sent to Gusev crater because of evidence that it contained an ancient lake. Lacustrine sediments were not identified, but aqueous activity was. Spirit encountered widespread meter-scale eroded outcrops and regolith composed of opaline silica in a setting associated with small-scale explosive volcanism. This combination was interpreted as evidence for a hydrothermal system, with silica produced by either fumarolic acid-sulfate leaching of host rocks or precipitation from silica-rich hot spring or geyser waters [1]. Evidence for the latter is stronger based on stratigraphic and textural arguments [2]. Our ongoing lab and field studies of terrestrial opaline silica occurrences demonstrate that fumarolic alteration leads to greater mineral diversity and less SiO2 enrichment than observed in the Gusev case, pointing to a hot spring or geyser origin. Terrestrial hot springs support microbial communities and can preserve that evidence over geologic timescales [3], making outcrops of opaline silica ideal targets in a search for biosignatures with instruments on the Mars 2020 rover.

Spirit also discovered outcrops with 16-34 wt% Mg-Fe carbonate. Dubbed Comanche, the carbonate was thought to result from dissolution by hydrothermal fluids of pre-existing carbonates elsewhere in Gusev followed by transport and re-precipitation [4]. A reanalysis found evidence that the alteration is consistent with evaporative precipitation of low-temperature, near-surface solutions derived from limited water-rock interaction in rocks equivalent to nearby “Algonquin” outcrops [5]. Water-limited leaching of formerly widespread Algonquin-like tephra deposits by ephemeral waters, followed by transport and evaporative precipitation of the fluids into the Comanche outcrops, can explain their chemical, mineralogical, and textural characteristics. The habitability potential of this setting is unclear, but detrital materials carried by floodwaters and preserved in carbonate cements may be of astrobiological interest.

[1] Squyres, S. W., et al. (2008), Science, 320, 1063-1067. [2] Ruff, S. W., et al. (2011), J. Geophys. Res., 116, E00F2. [3] Walter, M. R., et al. (1996), Palaios, 11, 497-518. [4] Morris, R. V., et al. (2010), Science, 329, 421-424. [5] Ruff, S. W., et al. (2014), Geology, 42, 4, 359-362.