It Hasn’t Rained on Mars for a Long Time, but These Sand Dunes Look Like Raindrops, and They’re Filled with Chemicals Made in Water

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Mars is well-known for being a dry and arid place, where dusty red sand dunes are prevalent and water exists almost entirely in the form of ice and permafrost. An upside to this, however, is the fact that these conditions are the reason why Mars’ many surface features are so well preserved. And as missions like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have shown, this allows for some pretty interesting finds.

Consider the picture recently taken by Curiosity’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) instrument while orbiting above the Copernicus Crater on Mars. This image showed raindrop-like features that are actually signs of sand dunes that are rich in olivine. These same types of dunes exist on Earth but are very rare since this mineral weathers quickly and turns to clay in wet environments.

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This Strange Feature on Mars was Probably the Result of an Ancient Volcanic Explosion

An olivine-rich deposit near Nili Fossae on the Martian surface. Image Credit: NASA/MRO

A strange feature on the surface of Mars has kept scientists guessing about its origin. It’s a surface deposit of a mineral which is more common in the interiors of planets. A new study shows that this interior mineral was probably brought to the surface by an ancient explosive volcano.

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Lovely Green Olivine On Vesta Paints A Different Formation History

The mineral olivine on Vesta, as seen from hyperspectral data received during the Dawn mission. Credit: Image generated by Alessandro Frigeri and Eleonora Ammannito using VIR data and Framing Camera images.

That ghoul-like sheen on the asteroid Vesta, as seen in the image above, is not some leftover of Hallowe’en. It’s evidence of the mineral olivine. Scientists have seen it before in “differentiated” bodies — those that have a crust and an inner core — but in this case, it’s turning up in an unexpected location.

Finding olivine is not that much of a surprise. Vesta is differentiated and also (likely) is the origin point of diogenite meteorites, which are sometimes olivine-rich. Researchers expected that the olivine would be close to the diogenite rocks, which in Vesta’s case are in areas of the south pole carved out from the mantle.

NASA’s Dawn mission to the asteroid did a search in areas around the south pole — “which are thought to be excavated mantle rocks”, the researchers wrote — but instead found olivine  in minerals close to the surface in the northern hemisphere. These minerals are called howardites and are normally not associated with olivine. So what is going on?

Artist's conception of the Dawn mission. Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of the Dawn mission. Credit: NASA

Basically, it means that Vesta’s history was far more complex than we expected. This situation likely arose from a series of impacts that changed around the eucritic (stony meteorite) crust of Vesta:

“A generalized geologic history for these olivine-rich materials could be as follows: ancient large impacts excavated and incorporated large blocks of diogenite-rich and olivine-rich material into the eucritic crust, and subsequent impacts exposed this olivine-rich material,” the researchers wrote.

“This produced olivine-rich terrains in a howarditic background, with diogene-rich howardites filling nearby, eroded, older basins.”

Dawn, by the way, has completed its time at Vesta and is now en route to another large asteroid, Ceres. But there’s still plenty of data for analysis. This particular research paper was led by E. Ammannito from the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Planetology (Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali) in Rome. The research appears in this week’s Nature and should be available shortly at this link.