What was the role of water on Mars in the past? Much of what we know about Mars has been from observation from a distance. Although a few missions have landed scientific equipment on the surface, and some meteorites from Mars have landed on the Earth's surface, a huge amount of data have been gathered from orbiting missions and from other remote observation techniques. The geology of the surface can be studied by looking at infrared and other radiation: different minerals react differently to particular sorts of light and radiation.
Javier Cuadros, a clay specialist in the Museum's Mineralogy Department, has been successful in being awarded money from the EU to host a research fellow under the Marie Curie scheme to explore the origin of Iron/Magnesium-rich clay minerals on Mars.
Clays have been discovered on Mars in the past five years using near-infrared spectroscopy - this is of particular importance because the presence of clay shows for the first time unambiguous evidence for long-term water activity on Mars. Understanding the conditions of formation of these
Fe/Mg-rich clays is central to revealing Mars' climate history; and the possiblity of there having been conditions suitable for life in the past .
The study will focus on marine systems on Earth that produce abundant Mg- and Fe-rich clays (talc, saponite and nontronite). These clays are often intimately mixed by chemical and physical processes and seem similar to Martian clays. It seems possible that similar water conditions on Mars may have generated the Fe/Mg-clays. The Earth clays from several submarine hydrothermal fields will be studied using advanced microscopy, chemical, spectroscopic, structural and isotope analytical techniques to fully characterise their crystal-chemistry and to define the environment in which they formed (temperature, fluids, mineral assemblages).
These infrared and other data for Earth clay will be compared with the data from Mars and similarities and differences will give much better understanding of the past role of water on Mars.