The imprint of atmospheric evolution in the D/H of Hesperian clay minerals on Mars

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Science  23 Jan 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6220, pp. 412-414
DOI: 10.1126/science.1260291

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Of water and methane on Mars

The Curiosity rover has been collecting data for the past 2 years, since its delivery to Mars (see the Perspective by Zahnle). Many studies now suggest that many millions of years ago, Mars was warmer and wetter than it is today. But those conditions required an atmosphere that seems to have vanished. Using the Curiosity rover, Mahaffy et al. measured the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in clays that were formed 3.0 to 3.7 billion years ago. Hydrogen escapes more readily than deuterium, so this ratio offers a snapshot measure of the ancient atmosphere that can help constrain when and how it disappeared. Most methane on Earth has a biological origin, so planetary scientists have keenly pursued its detection in the martian atmosphere as well. Now, Webster et al. have precisely confirmed the presence of methane in the martian atmosphere with the instruments aboard the Curiosity rover at Gale crater.

Science, this issue p. 412, p. 415; see also p. 370


The deuterium-to-hydrogen (D/H) ratio in strongly bound water or hydroxyl groups in ancient martian clays retains the imprint of the water of formation of these minerals. Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) experiment measured thermally evolved water and hydrogen gas released between 550° and 950°C from samples of Hesperian-era Gale crater smectite to determine this isotope ratio. The D/H value is 3.0 (±0.2) times the ratio in standard mean ocean water. The D/H ratio in this ~3-billion-year-old mudstone, which is half that of the present martian atmosphere but substantially higher than that expected in very early Mars, indicates an extended history of hydrogen escape and desiccation of the planet.

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