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Arizona Badlands on Mars?

View of multiple mineral horizons at Mawrth Vallis. Oblique view from HRSC mosaic featuring phyllosilicate-bearing outcrops in CRISM.

View of multiple mineral horizons at Mawrth Vallis. Oblique view from HRSC mosaic featuring phyllosilicate-bearing outcrops in CRISM.
Image Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin and NASA/CRISM

News from Oct 02, 2020

In the Arizona Badlands, not far from the Grand Canyon, within the National Park in a petrified forest, is the Painted Desert. Different types of rocks, such as siltstone, claystone and slate, characterize the stratified deposits in this area. Each horizon is a beautiful shade of red, orange, beige or purple. A new research paper recently published in Icarus shows a similarly stratified region of Mawrth Vallis, one of the oldest valleys on Mars.

A research team led by Dr. Janice Bishop of the SETI Institute has analyzed data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) on Mars Express, combining images from the CRISM, HiRISE and HRSC instruments, and made exciting discoveries.

There are five different horizons, some of which are about 200 meters thick and others only about 10-20 meters thick. Each horizon was formed at different times and under aqueous conditions. Changing chemistry and water conditions in the environment resulted in the formation of different minerals in each horizon.

High-resolution camera images show tiny saline outcrops between two horizons, indicating that water evaporated and reappeared, and that salts are concentrated between the clay horizons.

I wonder how dynamic the ancient environment in Mawrth Vallis was? "The transitions from iron(III) to iron(II) and from neutral clays to salty sulfates, for example, could indicate a change in water chemistry, often found on Earth along with microbial life," Bishop said.

While it is not known exactly what caused the changing chemistry on the former Mars over time, this could open up possibilities for habitability on the Red Planet.

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