Peculiar ‘Cauliflower Rocks’ May Hold Clues To Ancient Mars Life

"Cauliflower" shaped silica-rich rocks photographed by the Spirit Rover near the Home Plate rock formation in Gusev Crater in 2008. Could microbes have built their nodular shapes? Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
“Cauliflower” shaped silica-rich rocks photographed by the Spirit Rover near the Home Plate rock formation in Gusev Crater in 2008. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Evidence of water and a warmer, wetter climate abound on Mars, but did life ever put its stamp on the Red Planet? Rocks may hold the secret. Knobby protuberances of rock discovered by the Spirit Rover in 2008 near the rock outcrop Home Plate in Gusev Crater caught the attention of scientists back on Earth. They look like cauliflower or coral, but were these strange Martian rocks sculpted by microbes, wind or some other process?

Close-up of the lobed silica rocks on Mars photographed by the Spirit Rover on Sol 1157. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech
Close-up of the lobed silica rocks on Mars photographed by the Spirit Rover’s microscopic imager on Sol 1157. It’s not known where wind (or other non-biological process) or micro-life had a hand in creating these shapes. Credit: NASA/ JPL-Caltech

When analyzed by Spirit’s mini-TES (Mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometer), they proved to be made of nearly pure silica (SiO2), a mineral that forms in hot, volcanic environments. Rainwater and snow seep into cracks in the ground and come in contact with rocks heated by magma from below. Heated to hundreds of degrees, the water becomes buoyant and rises back toward the surface, dissolving silica and other minerals along the way before depositing them around a vent or fumarole. Here on Earth, silica precipitated from water leaves a pale border around many Yellowstone National Park’hot springs.

The Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park. Could it be an analog to similar springs, hydrothermal vents and geysers that may once have existed in Gusev Crater on Mars? Credit: Jim Peaco, National Park Service
The Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park. Could it be an analog to similar springs, hydrothermal vents and geysers that may once have existed in Gusev Crater on Mars? Credit: Jim Peaco, National Park Service

Both at Yellowstone, the Taupo Volcanic Zone in New Zealand and in Iceland, heat-loving bacteria are intimately involved in creating curious bulbous and branching shapes in silica formations that strongly resemble the Martian cauliflower rocks. New research presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting last month by planetary geologist Steven Ruff and geology professor Jack Farmer, both of Arizona State University, explores the possibility that microbes might have been involved in fashioning the Martian rocks, too.


A sizzling visit to El Tatio’s geysers

The researchers ventured to the remote geyser fields of El Tatio in the Chilean Atacama Desert to study an environment that may have mimicked Gusev Crater billions of years ago when it bubbled with hydrothermal activity. One of the driest places on Earth, the Atacama’s average elevation is 13,000 feet (4 km), exposing it to considerably more UV light from the sun and extreme temperatures ranging from -13°F to 113°F (-10° to 45°C). Outside of parts of Antarctica, it’s about as close to Mars as you’ll find on Earth.

Ruff and Farmer studied silica deposits around hot springs and geysers in El Tatio and discovered forms they call “micro-digitate silica structures” similar in appearance and composition to those on Mars (Here’s a photo). The infrared spectra of the two were also a good match. They’re still analyzing the samples to determine if heat-loving microbes may have played a role in their formation, but hypothesize that the features are “micro-stromatolites” much like those found at Yellowstone and Taupo.

A stromatolite from Wyoming made of many layers of bacteria-cemented mineral grains. Credit: Bob King
A stromatolite from Wyoming made of many layers of bacteria-cemented mineral grains. Credit: Bob King

Stromatolites form when a sticky film of bacteria traps and cements mineral grains to create a thin layer. Other layers form atop that one until a laminar mound or column results. The most ancient stromatolites on Earth may be about 3.5 billion years old. If Ruff finds evidence of biology in the El Tatio formations in the punishing Atacama Desert environment, it puts us one step closer to considering the possibility that ancient bacteria may have been at work on Mars.

Scientists have found evidence that Home Plate at Gusev crater on Mars is composed of debris deposited from a hydrovolcanic explosion. The finding suggests that water may have been involved in driving an eruption that formed the deposits found on Home Plate. Spirit found the silica-rich rocks at lower right near
Scientists have found evidence that Home Plate at Gusev crater on Mars is composed of debris deposited from a hydrovolcanic explosion. The finding suggests that water may have been involved in driving an eruption that formed the deposits found on Home Plate. Spirit found the silica-rich rocks at lower right near Tyrone in 2008. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Silica forms may originate with biology or from non-biological processes like wind, water and other environmental factors. Short of going there and collecting samples, there’s no way to be certain if the cauliflower rocks are imprinted with the signature of past Martian life. But at least we know of a promising place to look during a future sample return mission to the Red Planet. Indeed, according to Ruff, the Columbia Hills inside Gusev Crater he short list of potential sites for the 2020 Mars rover.

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Cosmic C.S.I.: Searching for the Origins of the Solar System in Two Grains of Sand

Composite Spitzer, Hubble, and Chandra image of supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. A new study shows that a supernova as far away as 50 light years could have devastating effects on life on Earth. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI/CXC/SAO)

“The total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth,” Carl Sagan famously said in his iconic TV series Cosmos. But when two of those grains are made of a silicon-and-oxygen compound called silica, and they were found hiding deep inside ancient meteorites recovered from Antarctica, they very well may be from a star… possibly even the one whose explosive collapse sparked the formation of the Solar System itself.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis with support from the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences have announced the discovery of two microscopic grains of silica in primitive meteorites originating from two different sources. This discovery is surprising because silica — one of the main components of sand on Earth today — is not one of the minerals thought to have formed within the Sun’s early circumstellar disk of material.

Instead, it’s thought that the two silica grains were created by a single supernova that seeded the early solar system with its cast-off material and helped set into motion the eventual formation of the planets.

According to a news release by Washington University, “it’s a bit like learning the secrets of the family that lived in your house in the 1800s by examining dust particles they left behind in cracks in the floorboards.”

A 3.5-cm chondrite meteorite found in Antarctica in Nov. 1998. Dark meteorites show up well against the icy terrain of Antarctica. (Carnegie Mellon University)
A 3.5-cm chondrite meteorite found in Antarctica in Nov. 1998. Dark meteorites show up well against the icy terrain of Antarctica. (Carnegie Mellon University)

Until the 1960s most scientists believed the early Solar System got so hot that presolar material could not have survived. But in 1987 scientists at the University of Chicago discovered miniscule diamonds in a primitive meteorite (ones that had not been heated and reworked). Since then they’ve found grains of more than ten other minerals in primitive meteorites.

The scientists can tell these grains came from ancient stars because they have highly unusual isotopic signatures, and different stars produce different proportions of isotopes.

But the material from which our Solar System was fashioned was mixed and homogenized before the planets formed. So all of the planets and the Sun have the pretty much the same “solar” isotopic composition.

Meteorites, most of which are pieces of asteroids, have the solar composition as well, but trapped deep within the primitive ones are pure samples of stars, and the isotopic compositions of these presolar grains can provide clues to their complex nuclear and convective processes.

The layered structure of a star about to go supernova; different layers contain different elements (Wikimedia)
The layered structure of a star about to go supernova; different layers contain different elements (Wikimedia)

Some models of stellar evolution predict that silica could condense in the cooler outer atmospheres of stars, but others say silicon would be completely consumed by the formation of magnesium- or iron-rich silicates, leaving none to form silica.

“We didn’t know which model was right and which was not, because the models had so many parameters,” said Pierre Haenecour, a graduate student in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University and the first author on a paper to be published in the May 1 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Under the guidance of physics professor Dr. Christine Floss, who found some of the first silica grains in a meteorite in 2009, Haenecour investigated slices of a primitive meteorite brought back from Antarctica and located a single grain of silica out of 138 presolar grains. The grain he found was rich in oxygen-18, signifying its source as from a core-collapse supernova.

Finding that along with another oxygen-18-enriched silica grain identified within another meteorite by graduate student Xuchao Zhao, Haenecour and his team set about figuring out how such silica grains could form within the collapsing layers of a dying star. They found they could reproduce the oxygen-18 enrichment of the two grains through the mixing of small amounts of material from a star’s oxygen-rich inner zones and the oxygen-18-rich helium/carbon zone with large amounts of material from the outer hydrogen envelope of the supernova.

In fact, Haenecour said, the mixing that produced the composition of the two grains was so similar, the grains might well have come from the same supernova — possibly the very same one that sparked the collapse of the molecular cloud that formed our Solar System.

“It’s a bit like learning the secrets of the family that lived in your house in the 1800s by examining dust particles they left behind in cracks in the floorboards.”

Ancient meteorites, a few microscopic grains of stellar sand, and a lot of lab work… it’s an example of cosmic forensics at its best!

Source: Washington University in St. Louis