Water on ancient Mars

October 30, 2020

There's a long-standing question in planetary science about the origin of water on Earth, Mars and other large bodies such as the moon. One hypothesis says that it came from asteroids and comets post-formation. But some planetary researchers think that water might just be one of many substances that occur naturally during the formation of planets. A new analysis of an ancient Martian meteorite adds support for this second hypothesis.

Several years ago, a pair of dark meteorites were discovered in the Sahara Desert. They were dubbed NWA 7034 and NWA 7533, where NWA stands for North West Africa and the number is the order in which meteorites are officially approved by the Meteoritical Society, an international planetary science organization. Analysis showed these meteorites are new types of Martian meteorites and are mixtures of different rock fragments.

The earliest fragments formed on Mars 4.4 billion years ago, making them the oldest known Martian meteorites. Rocks like this are rare and can fetch up to $10,000 per gram. But recently 50 grams of NWA 7533 was acquired for analysis by the international team in which Professor Takashi Mikouchi at the University of Tokyo was participating.

"I study minerals in Martian meteorites to understand how Mars formed and its crust and mantle evolved. This is the first time I have investigated this particular meteorite, nicknamed Black Beauty for its dark color," said Mikouchi. "Our samples of NWA 7533 were subjected to four different kinds of spectroscopic analysis, ways of detecting chemical fingerprints. The results led our team to draw some exciting conclusions."

It's well known to planetary scientists that there has been water on Mars for at least 3.7 billion years. But from the mineral composition of the meteorite, Mikouchi and his team deduced it's likely there was water present much earlier, at around 4.4 billion years ago.

"Igneous clasts, or fragmented rock, in the meteorite are formed from magma and are commonly caused by impacts and oxidation," said Mikouchi. "This oxidation could have occurred if there was water present on or in the Martian crust 4.4 billion years ago during an impact that melted part of the crust. Our analysis also suggests such an impact would have released a lot of hydrogen, which would have contributed to planetary warming at a time when Mars already had a thick insulating atmosphere of carbon dioxide."

If there was water on Mars earlier than thought, that suggests water is possibly a natural byproduct of some process early on in planet formation. This finding could help researchers answer the question of where water comes from, which in turn could impact theories on the origins of life and the exploration for life beyond Earth.
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Journal article

Zhengbin Deng, Frédéric Moynier, Johan Villeneuve, Ninna K. Jensen, Deze Liu, Pierre Cartigny, Takashi Mikouchi, Julien Siebert, Arnaud Agranier, Marc Chaussidon, Martin Bizzarro. Early oxidation of the martian crust triggered by impacts. Science Advances. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abc4941

Funding information

F.M. acknowledges the ERC under the H2020 framework programme/ERC grant agreement no. 637503 (Pristine). M.C. and F.M. thank financial support from the UnivEarthS Labex programme at Sorbonne Paris Cité (ANR-10- LABX-0023 and ANR-11-IDEX-0005-02), the ANR CRADLE project (ANR-15-CE31-0004-1), the IPGP platform PARI, and the Region Île-de-France Sesame grant no. 12015908. M.B. acknowledges funding from the Carlsberg Foundation (CF18_1105), the Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF97), and the European Research Council (ERC Advanced Grant Agreement 833275-DEEPTIME).

The University Museum at The University of Tokyo - http://www.um.u-tokyo.ac.jp/index_en.html

Research contact

Professor Takashi Mikouchi
The University Museum, The University of Tokyo
7-3-1 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-8654, JAPAN
Tel: +81-(0)3-5841-2830
Email: mikouchi@um.u-tokyo.ac.jp

Press contact

Mr. Rohan Mehra
Division for Strategic Public Relations, The University of Tokyo
7-3-1 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 113-8654, JAPAN
Email: press-releases.adm@gs.mail.u-tokyo.ac.jp

About the University of Tokyo

The University of Tokyo is Japan's leading university and one of the world's top research universities. The vast research output of some 6,000 researchers is published in the world's top journals across the arts and sciences. Our vibrant student body of around 15,000 undergraduate and 15,000 graduate students includes over 4,000 international students. Find out more at http://www.u-tokyo.ac.jp/en/ or follow us on Twitter at @UTokyo_News_en.

University of Tokyo

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