Do Martian clay deposits prove existence of liquid water? No.

A study found that the types of clays found on Mars to not necessarily require Earthlike aquatic conditions.

JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ./NASA/Reuters
Rock fins up to about 1 foot tall are visible in this image by NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity taken on August 23. Orbital investigation of the area has identified a possibility of clay minerals in this area of the Cape York segment of the western rim of Endeavour Crater.

In the hunt for evidence of a warmer, wetter past on Mars, clay deposits have been viewed as good indications that stable liquid water existed on its surface for some time — perhaps even long enough to allow life to develop. But new research conducted here on Earth shows that some clays don’t necessarily need lakes of liquid water to form. Instead they can be the result of volcanic activity, which is not nearly so hospitable to life.

A research team led by Alain Meunier of the Université de Poitiers in France studied lavas containing iron and magnesium — similar to ancient clays identified on the surface of Mars — in the French Polynesian atoll of Moruroa. The team’s findings show that the same types of clay outcrops can be caused by the solidifying of water-rich magma in a volcanic environment, and don’t require Earthlike aquatic conditions at all.

The results also correlate to the deuterium-to-hydrogen (D/H) ratio within clays found in Martian meteorites.

Read: Life from Mars Could Have Polluted Earth

“To crystallize, clays need water but not necessarily liquid water,” said Alain Meunier to the Agençe France-Presse (AFP). “Consequently, they cannot be used to prove that the planet was habitable or not during its early history.”

Additionally, the clay deposits found on Mars can be several hundred meters thick, which seems to be more indicative of upwelling magma than interactions with water.

“[This] new hypothesis proposes that the minerals instead formed during brief periods of magmatic degassing, diminishing the prospects for signs of life in these settings,” wrote Brian Hynek from the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Colorado, in response to the paper by Meunier et al. which was published in the September 9 edition of the journal Nature Geoscience.

This does not necessarily mean that all Martian clays weren’t formed in the presence of water, however. Gale Crater — where NASA’s Curiosity rover is now exploring — could very well have been the site of a Martian lake, billions of years in the past. Clays found there could have been created by water.

Read: Take a Trip to Explore Gale Crater

According to Bethany Ehlmann of the California Institute of Technology, co-author of the study, “there are particular characteristics of texture” to clays formed under different conditions, and “Gale is a different flavor of Mars.”

Perhaps Curiosity will yet discover if Gale’s original flavor was more cool and wet than hot and spicy.

Read more on New Scientist and Cosmos Magazine.

Inset image: Moruroa Atoll (NASA) 

Jason Major is a graphic artist from Rhode Island now living and working in Dallas, Texas. He writes about astronomy and space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, on Universe Today and also on Discovery News.

This story originally appeared in Universe Today.

Want to stay on top of all the space news? Follow @universetoday on Twitter

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Do Martian clay deposits prove existence of liquid water? No.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today