The extensive hematite deposit in Meridiani Planum was selected as the landing site for the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity because the site may have been favorable to the preservation of evidence of possible prebiotic or biotic processes. One of the proposed mechanisms for formation of this deposit involves surface weathering and coatings, exemplified on Earth by rock varnish. Microbial life, including microcolonial fungi and bacteria, is documented in rock varnish matrices from the southwestern United States and Australia. Limited evidence of this life is preserved as cells and cell molds mineralized by iron oxides and hydroxides, as well as by manganese oxides. Such mineralization of microbial cells has previously been demonstrated experimentally and documented in banded iron formations, hot spring deposits, and ferricrete soils. These types of deposits are examples of the four "water-rock interaction" scenarios proposed for formation of the hematite deposit on Mars. The instrument suite on Opportunity has the capability to distinguish among these proposed formation scenarios and, possibly, to detect traces that are suggestive of preserved martian microbiota. However, the confirmation of microfossils or preserved biosignatures will likely require the return of samples to terrestrial laboratories. Published by Elsevier Inc.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
We gratefully acknowledge support from the NASA Astrobiology Institute through Principal Investigator David McKay (CA, FW, TL) and the Lunar and Planetary Institute Summer Intern Program (TL, RS, LP, BF). Craig Schwandt, Kathie Thomas-Keprta, and Susan Wentworth provided invaluable assistance in the electron microscope laboratories. Everett Gibson generously donated the Pilbara samples for this study. Thoughtful comments by David Krinsley significantly improved the manuscript.
- Meridiani Planum
- Rock varnish