16 December 2009
For those not familiar with the conference, the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union is a terrifyingly, overwhelmingly large conference. Each year, something like 16,000 geoscientists descend on San Francisco to share their work. It is also one of the major planetary science conferences, so a lot of new results are first presented here.
This year, the first talks that I checked out on Monday were about radar observations of Mars. By sending radar waves from spacecraft to the surface and then recieving the reflected waves, we can learn a lot about Mars. In particular, since radar penetrates tens to hundreds of meters below the visible surface, it can reveal otherwise hidden structures. This has been especially successful at mapping the structure of the polar caps, because radar penetrates through ice quite well.
Roger Phillips gave a talk summarizing some of the results from the SHARAD radar instrument on MRO. Among other thers, SHARAD has found evidence that the spiral troughs in the north polar ice cap have migrated over time, as predicted many years ago by theoretical models. SHARAD has also found ancient buried canyons in the polar ice, which menas the ice caps have been around for quite a while. There are also some exiting new results implying that the material filling valleys in the Deuteronilus Mensae area is quite transparent to radar waves, and might in fact be something like glacier ice.
After the radar talks, there were a whole bunch of presentations about aqueous alteration on Mars. One of the main lessons that I took away from those talks was that Mars is still a very confusing place. For example, Hap McSween used data from the Mars rovers and characterized typical soils at both landing sites. He found that the compositions of soils are roughly 70% unaltered material and 30% alteration products. He also showed that the soil compositions are quite similar between the two landing sites, which are on opposite sides of the planet, and that the unaltered portion of the soil is similar to the rocks at both sites.
However, the next talk by Josh Bandfield used orbital data and found that in general rocks on Mars have more of the mineral olivine than the soils. This is a somewhat different result than the rover data, and it might imply that rocks on Mars actually have more magnesium and iron than previously thought.
Other talks related to Mars alteration focused on “clay” and sulfate minerals detected on Mars. One that I found particularly interesting was by Paul Niles, who pointed out that Mars is an “obliquity-driven” planet. In other words, its tilt varies widely, and the Mars we see now is not typical. Niles suggested that during more typical periods, ice might have formed large layers at Mawrth Vallis, a location known for its strong hydrated mineral features. Melting at the base of that ice could have leached the rocks, explaining the presence of specific Al-bearing clay minerals.
Another interesting talk was by Itav Halevy, who took a look at how the presence of SO2 gas influences the formation of carbonate minerals. It turns out, even a tiny amount of SO2 gas (which is often released by volcanoes) can prefent the formation of CaCO3. If there is iron around, FeCO3 (the mineral siderite) forms instead. The implication is that sulfur minerals should form in different locations than clay minerals and siderite.
Continuing with the sulfur theme, Albert Yen talked about some results from the Spirit rover. He said that basically, if the rover had to get stuck, it picked a really fascinating place to do it! Based on the compositions measured, it turns out that there is too much sulfur in the soil to balance it out by assuming it is combined with other elements like Fe and Mg. That means there might be pure elemental sulfur mixed in with the soil, which would be consistent with hydrothermal activity!
My officemate and occasional contributor here at the Martian Chronicles, Briony Horgan, also gave a nice talk summarizing some of her recent work. For a long time there has been a question about the so-called “surface type 2” on mars. This surface type has higher than usual Si, but that could be due to a different type of lava, or alteration of the more common basalt seen elsewhere on Mars. Briony presented new evidence, based on the overall shape of the spectra of surface type 2 regions, that these areas might be due to a silica glass coating! This sort of coating could form when thin films of water from thawing ground ice altered the surface of sand grains, and would imply relatively recent alteration processes on mars.
Finally, the day ended with the Whipple prize lecture, which was unfortunately full of some misleading information about the history and status of Mars science. But that’s the topic for a future post.