Mars and Earth: Origin and Abundance of Volatiles

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Science  04 Nov 1977:
Vol. 198, Issue 4316, pp. 453-465
DOI: 10.1126/science.198.4316.453


Mars, like Earth, may have received its volatiles in the final stages of accretion, as a veneer of volatile-rich material similar to C3V carbonaceous chondrites. The high 40Ar/36Ar ratio and low 36Ar abundance on Mars, compared to data for other differentiated planets, suggest that Mars is depleted in volatiles relative to Earth—by a factor of 1.7 for K and 14 other moderately volatile elements and by a factor of 35 for 36Ar and 15 other highly volatile elements.

Using these two scaling factors, we have predicted martian abundances of 31 elements from terrestrial abundances. Comparison with the observed 36Ar abundance suggests that outgassing on Mars has been about four times less complete than on Earth. Various predictions of the model can be checked against observation. The initial abundance of N, prior to escape, was about ten times the present value of 0.62 ppb, in good agreement with an independent estimate based on the observed enhancement in the martian 15N/14N ratio (78,79). The initial water content corresponds to a 9-m layer, close to the value of ≥13 m inferred from the lack of an 18O/16O fractionation (75). The predicted crustal Cl/S ratio of 0.23 agrees exactly with the value measured for martian dust (67); we estimate the thickness of this dust layer to be about 70 m. The predicted surface abundance of carbon, 290 g/cm2, is 70 times greater than the atmospheric CO2 value, but the CaCO3 content inferred for martian dust (67) could account for at least one-quarter of the predicted value. The past atmospheric pressure, prior to formation of carbonates, could have been as high as 140 mbar, and possibly even 500 mbar. Finally, the predicted 129Xe/132Xe ratio of 2.96 agrees fairly well with the observed value of 2.5+2–1 (85).

From the limited data available thus far, a curious dichotomy seems to be emerging among differentiated planets in the inner solar system. Two large planets (Earth and Venus) are fairly rich in volatiles, whereas three small planets (Mars, the moon, and the eucrite parent body—presumably the asteroid 4 Vesta) are poorer in volatiles by at least an order of magnitude. None of the obvious mechanisms seems capable of explaining this trend, and so we can only speculate that the same mechanism that stunted the growth of the smaller bodies prevented them from collecting their share of volatiles. But why then did the parent bodies of the chondrites and shergottites fare so much better?

One of the driving forces behind the exploration of the solar system has always been the realization that these studies can provide essential clues to the intricate network of puzzles associated with the origin of life and its prevalence in the universe. In our own immediate neighborhood, Mars has always seemed to be the planet most likely to harbor extraterrestrial life, so the environment we have found in the vicinity of the two Viking landers is rather disappointing in this context. But the perspective we have gained through the present investigation suggests that this is not a necessary condition for planets at the distance of Mars from a solar-type central star. In other words, if it turns out that Mars is completely devoid of life, this does not mean that the zones around stars in which habitable planets can exist are much narrower than has been thought (114). Suppose Mars had been a larger planet—the size of Earth or Venus—and therefore had accumulated a thicker veneer and had also developed global tectonic activity on the scale exhibited by Earth. A much larger volatile reservoir would now be available, there would be repeated opportunities for tapping that reservoir, and the increased gravitational field would limit escape from the upper atmosphere. Such a planet could have produced and maintained a much thicker atmosphere, which should have permitted at least an intermittently clement climate to exist. How different would such a planet be from the present Mars? Could a stable, warm climate be maintained? It seems conceivable that an increase in the size of Mars might have compensated for its greater distance from the sun and that the life zone around our star would have been enlarged accordingly.

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