Taking Mars’ Temperature – The ALH84001 Meteorite

Article written: 13 Oct , 2011
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015


It might be four billion years old, but this meteorite which may have originated near the surface of Mars has a story to tell… one about a warmer and wetter history. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have been analyzing the carbonate minerals contained within the Martian meteorite – ALH84001- and piecing together a climate history which showed the minerals formed at about 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit).

“The thing that’s really cool is that 18 degrees is not particularly cold nor particularly hot,” says Woody Fischer, assistant professor of geobiology and coauthor of the paper, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on October 3. “It’s kind of a remarkable result.”

All recent studies, from rovers to spectroscopy, point to Mars having once had a much more temperate climate than its current average temperature of -63 degrees Celsius. Missions have photographed dry river beds, deltas, extinct lakes and more. Up until now, the one crucial point has been the lack of physical evidence. “There are all these ideas that have been developed about a warmer, wetter early Mars,” Fischer says. “But there’s precious little data that actually bears on it.” That is, until now.

Of course, this mineralogical evidence is strictly one point – but it’s one point closer to knowing the full score. “It’s proof that early in the history of Mars, at least one place on the planet was capable of keeping an Earth-like climate for at least a few hours to a few days,” says John Eiler, the Robert P. Sharp Professor of Geology and professor of geochemistry, and a coauthor of the paper. The first author is Itay Halevy, a former postdoctoral scholar who’s now at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

Where did this new evidence come from? Try ALH84001, a Martian meteorite discovered in 1984 in the Allan Hills of Antarctica. While scientists cannot definitely prove where it came from, ALH84001 is theorized to have once originated several hundred feet below the Martian surface and was blown Earthward during an impact event. The Martian meteorite made headlines in 1996 when little inclusions that appeared to be fossilized bacteria were discovered. Even though the thought of simple life forms were quickly shot down, the pockets which contained carbonate minerals remained an enigma.

“It’s been devilishly difficult to work out the process that generated the carbonate minerals in the first place,” Eiler says. But there have been countless hypotheses, he adds, and they all depend on the temperature in which the carbonates formed. Some scientists say the minerals formed when carbonate-rich magma cooled and crystallized. Others have suggested that the carbonates grew from chemical reactions in hydrothermal processes. Another idea is that the carbonates precipitated out of saline solutions. The temperatures required for all these processes range from above 700 degrees Celsius in the first case to below freezing in the last. “All of these ideas have merit,” Eiler says.

Deducing the temperature may help scientists to understand how the carbonates came to be, so a form of modeling called clumped-isotope thermometry was employed to help. It’s so sensitive it’s able to determine a dinosaur’s body temperature in relation to Earth’s climate history. In this case, the team measured concentrations of the rare isotopes oxygen-18 and carbon-13 contained in the carbonate samples. Carbonate is made out of carbon and oxygen, and as it forms, the two rare isotopes may bond to each other – clumping together, as Eiler calls it. As the temperature progressively lowers, the isotopes do their thing and clump. The degree to which this happens is directly related to temperature. The temperature the researchers measured – 18 ± 4 degrees Celsius – rules out many carbonate-formation hypotheses. “A lot of ideas that were out there are gone,” Eiler says. For one, the mild temperature means that the carbonate must have formed in liquid water. “You can’t grow carbonate minerals at 18 degrees other than from an aqueous solution,” he explains.

Through this new information, it is also hypothesized the minerals may have come into existence inside the cavities of rock while it was below ground. “As the water evaporated, the rock outgassed carbon dioxide, and the solutes in the water became more concentrated. The minerals then combined with dissolved carbonate ions to produce carbonate minerals, which were left behind as the water continued to evaporate.” A vessel for life? Well, chances aren’t good since any liquid water would have lasted for only a brief time – but it is a great indicator that this precious life-giver was once a part of Mars’ history.

Original Story Source: Caltech News Release.

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5 Responses

  1. Dominick Gilbert says

    That’s interesting because isn’t the earth 4 billion years old?

    • squidgeny says

      Yes, the Earth and Mars formed at roughly the same time.

    • squidgeny says

      Yes, the Earth and Mars formed at roughly the same time.

    • Torbjörn Larsson says

      The solar system including the planets started to form at the same time. Mars, which may be a surviving planetoid, may have formed in a mere 3 Ma, while Earth may have taken 30 Ma. ALH 84001 rock formed ~ 4.1 Ga bp, which is well after the Earth-Moon system formed. But we don’t have surviving Earth rocks that go that far back due to plate tectonics.

      It _is_ interesting that roughly the same temperatures are observed on Earth and Mars as far back as we can go. There are ~ 4.35 Ga bp Earth zircons that have formed with liquid water around. Salt inclusions and cherts* that goes back to ~ 3.5 Ga bp both shows ~ 40 degC ocean temperatures.

      Modern greenhouse modeling** says that very little carbon dioxide was needed to get that, despite the young sun irradiating ~ 30 % less heat, one or two orders of magnitudes less than earlier researchers claimed. So these temperatures are certainly possible for both planets.

      * Older measurements gave higher temperatures for cherts, but there is a new very good paper IMHO that accords with isotope data from the solar nebula and that gives a temperature consistent with the single salt inclusion observation.

      ** So AGW has been good for something. :-/

      • Torbjörn Larsson says

        OT on the context of AGW, and I haven’t followed it up (yet), but the other day a press release claimed that research may connect The Little Ice Age to the depopulation of Americas (perhaps specifically South America) that followed the european colonization.

        Down goes a popular AGW denial claim of LIA refuting AGW, since it was due to anthropogenic influence of the greenhouse climate in the first place. But yay for good climate science and how it helps model planets!

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