Finding Mars on Earth: Chilean Hot Springs Provide New Clues to a Martian Mystery

By Jeffrey Marlow | November 28, 2016 7:52 am
Geysers of El Tatio, Chile. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Geysers of El Tatio, Chile. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In 2007, the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Spirit came across a slightly raised platform, roughly pentagonal in shape and 90 meters across, which scientists named Home Plate. The rocky outcrop had a base of solidified ash, with nearby deposits of gas-filled basalts. Next to the plateau, nubby, nodular chunks of rock showed up, and light-colored soil just beneath the surface was exposed by the rover’s wheels. Mineralogical spectra of the bright soil were beamed back to Earth, revealing, to the scientists’ surprise, that it was composed almost entirely of silica.

When the geological puzzle pieces were assembled, two main options emerged: Home Plate may have been a volcanic fumarole, spewing sulfuric acid at basaltic rocks and leaving silica behind, or it could signify the remnants of a mineral rich hot spring, whose silica-saturated water generated the knobby rocks. Either way, water and heat were likely involved, and the discovery led to an onslaught of new questions and exciting plans for further studies.

But then, the Spirit rover went silent, forcing MER scientists to get creative. To pursue the Home Plate mystery, they’ve scoured the Earth for mineralogical signals most similar to those found on Mars. By determining the conditions that best recapitulate the martian data, the thinking goes, we might be able to piece together the events of Mars’ ancient past.

Which is why Steve Ruff, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University and a key player in the Home Plate analysis, traveled thousands of miles to El Tatio, a series of hot springs in the rare air of Chile’s altiplano. At 14,000 feet high, the cold and dry landscape was as close to Mars as Ruff and his crew were going to get.

Once there, they tracked down opaline silica, an amorphous combination of SiO2 and water that forms thin, crusty deposits around water channels. Using the same type of infrared spectrometer that Spirit deployed on Mars, they were specifically on the lookout for samples that showed a strong absorption feature at 1,260 wavenumbers in the spectrum. While most of the Home Plate absorption bands made sense based on terrestrial geology, that 1,260 band had remained mysterious.

Remarkably, some samples showed the 1,260 feature – samples that had a thin crust of NaCl on top of the silica. Looking even closer with electron microscopy, these rocks showed thin layers that alternated between compacted silica and a hole-filled texture that has, in similar samples from New Zealand, been shaped through microbial activity. As biofilms of dense microbial communities grow, they excrete sugar-rich slime, which binds silica or calcium minerals that precipitate out of the hot water. Rocks are constructed, and while some cells are too sluggish to escape and are entombed by the silica, most squirm upward to the surface, leaving a network of holes that is filled in with salty water and ultimately coated with halite.

Bringing several types of data together – mineralogical, morphological, and chemical – Ruff and his colleagues have published a convincing report arguing that the opaline silica at Home Plate came from a hot spring rather than a volcanic fumarole. They also note that the martian “silica structures bear a strong resemblance to the microbially mediated microstromatolites at El Tatio.” It’s an alluring, if grasping, hypothesis, but one that makes scientists wonder what could have been if Spirit were still trundling along on the surface of Mars.

  • OWilson

    We need an updated remote controlled robot vehicle on Mars now! That should do us for a year, until the next one!

    But we’ve had 45 years of 1970’s vintage Radio Shack remote controlled cars already, from the thousands of people at NASA , and their pals in the military-industrial complex. We have spent billions, and still the same old questions!

    Since Citizen Science has become popularized, how about a competition for high school students to put together an updated longer lasting version.

    The prize would be an Iphone, and maybe a Playstation or an XBox.

    A Red Bull neighborhood party for the winners.

    Save all that money on NASA/Northrop/Locheed Martin/Boeing/Raytheon/General Dynamics/and the champagne!

    We might even find some smart young brains to replace the tired old PC political appointed tenures on the public payroll, trying to figure out how “Muslim Outreach” can be celebrated on Mars!

    • Uncle Al

      Said project is socially invalid if not exclusively staffed by polysexuals, diversity, victims, other-abled…overseen by interlegal US residents, and absent any US flag.

      Re-establish the rule of men – sweating, swearing, lusting, hairy, ugly, violent, and driven. It’s a comfortable place to be when getting things done. One cannot cast steel in wax molds.

      • zlop

        “Re-establish the rule of men”?
        Sorry, that option is no more.

        For the near future; “Illuminati Defector
        ‘Rothschilds Rule With Druid Witches'”

      • OWilson

        “Sweating, swearing, lusting, hairy, ugly, violent and driven”, are now adjectives applied to what we used to describe as , “the fair sex”.

        You’ve come along way, baby! :)

    • JohnnyMorales

      The reason why we face the same old question is the dogma of astronomy worldwide in regard to the search for life.

      PRIORITY #1 over all others is to prevent unintentional contamination with Earth microbes that might have somehow survived the trip to Mars.

      That’s AFTER the intense sterilization routine the probe is putt through before it ever lands.

      I’m not exaggerating, and it gets even more absurd.

      Because the scientists cannot be 100% certain that they have successfully eliminated any Earthly contamination from exploratory craft going to Mars, the have decided NEVER to visit the places on Mars that are demonstrably the most likely places to find life should it still exist on Mars or signs of it if it ever did.

      That’s why we haven’t gone anywhere near the mud volcanoes on the northern plains of Mars which are some of the most recent if not the most recent geological activity on Mars that involved liquid water flowing to the surface in the form of mud.

      That’s why we’ve never come close to the Hellas Basin and paid a visit to the lowest place on the planet, where the atmosphere is 89% thicker than at the mean elevation. It is sufficiently thick that water can exist as a liquid for an extended period of time should it get warm enough. The Hellas basin is also clearly underlain by glaciers, and rich with water derived features that are among the most recent to form on the planet.

      The bottom line is this.

      It doesn’t matter how many advanced probes, landers we send to Mars. As long as we keep avoiding the places most likely to have or have signs of past life we are very unlikely to find it.

      This mindset is why the Galileo probe was sent into the cloud tops of Jupiter instead of being sent on an orbit that would have taken it closer and closer to the surface of Europa in order to provide high resolution photos that would have been able to answer a few more questions about that moon.

      That mindset is why Cassini is going to end its journey the same way albeit into the cloud tops of Saturn instead of focusing the last month on getting as close to Titan or Encelidus to get some final super close pictures.

      In both cases the researchers fear that cassini crash landing on either moon poses a too big of risk of delivering deadly Earthly pathogens that will destroy those moons own life should there be any.

      They fear that even though it’s spent well over a decade in cold outer space and experienced radiation levels many times that face by life on Earth of any kind.

      To me I find it astounding that such intelligent individuals are so fearful of contaminating the solar system with Earth organisms despite the possibility being vanishingly small even if we tried extremely hard to make it happen.

      It’s PC thinking in Astronomy that needs to go.

  • John C



The Extremo Files

The Extremo Files traces the science that is pushing the boundaries of biology, from the deep sea to outer space to the brave new world of synthetic biology.

About Jeffrey Marlow

Jeffrey Marlow is a geobiologist exploring the limits of life, from the role of microbes in global elemental cycles to the possibility of life beyond Earth and the brave new world of synthetic biology. He received his PhD from the California Institute of Technology and is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar at Harvard University, where he studies the inner workings of methane-metabolizing organisms.


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