Powerful electrical events quickly alter surface chemistry on Mars, other planetary bodies

December 14, 2020

Thinking like Earthlings may have caused scientists to overlook the electrochemical effects of Martian dust storms.

On Earth, dust particles are viewed mainly in terms of their physical effects, like erosion. But, in exotic locales from Mars to Venus to Jupiter's icy moon Europa, electrical effects can affect the chemical composition of a planetary body's surface and atmosphere in a relatively short time, according to new research from Washington University in St. Louis.

"This direction of scientific investigation has been largely overlooked in the past," said Alian Wang, research professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in Arts & Sciences. "Researchers are used to thinking 'inside the box' based on terrestrial experience."

Wang's study in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planetsfocuses on amorphous sulfur and chlorine salts found by the Curiosity rover at Gale crater on Mars. The chemical signature of these materials could have been induced by electrochemical processes during Martian dust activities in a relatively short geologic time frame: years to hundreds of years.

Low-strength electrostatic discharge causes electrochemical reactions that transform materials on the Martian surface, Wang explained, causing loss of crystallinity, removal of structural water and oxidation of certain elements like sulfur, chlorine and iron.

"The collective chemical effect of electrostatic discharge can be significant," Wang said. "This is the core idea of our new study."

The findings could inform science priorities for the next phase of Mars exploration missions, including NASA's Perseverance rover, China National Space Administration's Tianwen-1 lander and rover, and the European Space Agency's ExoMars lander and rover.

"'Explore the subsurface' is the suggestion that we would give to the next phase of Mars exploration missions," said Bradley Jolliff, the Scott Rudolph Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences and a co-author on the paper.

"These missions are all seeking evidence for geological and hydrological evolution at their selected landing sites, and they are especially looking for and hoping to collect samples that contain traces of past biological activity," Jolliff said. "Exploring the subsurface would enable sampling of ancient materials -- some of which might still be safekeeping precious biomarkers."
-end-
Read more on the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences' website.

Washington University in St. Louis

Related Mars Articles from Brightsurf:

Water on ancient Mars
A meteorite that originated on Mars billions of years ago reveals details of ancient impact events on the red planet.

Surprise on Mars
NASA's InSight mission provides data from the surface of Mars.

Going nuclear on the moon and Mars
It might sound like science fiction, but scientists are preparing to build colonies on the moon and, eventually, Mars.

Mars: Where mud flows like lava
An international research team including recreated martian conditions in a low-pressure chamber to observe the flow of mud.

What's Mars made of?
Earth-based experiments on iron-sulfur alloys thought to comprise the core of Mars reveal details about the planet's seismic properties for the first time.

The seismicity of Mars
Fifteen months after the successful landing of the NASA InSight mission on Mars, first scientific analyses of ETH Zurich researchers and their partners reveal that the planet is seismically active.

Journey to the center of Mars
While InSight's seismometer has been patiently waiting for the next big marsquake to illuminate its interior and define its crust-mantle-core structure, two scientists, have built a new compositional model for Mars.

Getting mac and cheese to Mars
Washington State University scientists have developed a way to triple the shelf life of ready-to-eat macaroni and cheese, a development that could have benefits for everything from space travel to military use.

Life on Mars?
Researchers from Hungary have discovered embedded organic material in a Martian meteorite found in the late 1970s.

New evidence of deep groundwater on Mars
Researchers at the USC Arid Climate and Water Research Center (AWARE) have published a study that suggests deep groundwater could still be active on Mars and could originate surface streams in some near-equatorial areas on Mars.

Read More: Mars News and Mars Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.