Antarctica: Google Earth user spots ‘skeletal remains’
Antarctica’s barren polar landscape hides a wealth of information trapped in its ice, thousands of feet below the surface. Scientists drill into the ice to learn about the past climates and the chemical composition of Earth’s ancient atmosphere. But a team of researchers drilling a mile into the Antarctic ice came across something unexpected – a rare mineral more closely associated with Mars than it is with Earth.
The mineral jarosite is abundant on Mars, where the Red Planet’s conditions were once just right for the mineral to form.
According to the US space agency NASA, the yellow-brownish mineral forms in the presence of water and acidic conditions.
Mars may no longer be wet and acidic but deposits of the mineral have been found below the surface.
NASA’s Mars Opportunity rover was the first to detect jarosite on the Red Planet in 2004, and the mineral has since been found across multiple Martian locations.
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The discovery was critical because jarosite needs water to form and its presence shed new light on Mars’s suspected wet past.
According to one theory, the Red Planet may have been blanketed in ice billions of years ago.
If you throw acidic conditions, iron, sulphate and potassium into the mix, jarosite will form.
These ancient conditions are a far cry from the lifeless desert Mars is today.
But what about Earth? Jarosite can found in ore deposits or near volcanic vents but it is very rare.
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And scientists have never seen evidence of the mineral forming within an ice sheet – possibly until now.
The jarosite discovery was presented this month in the journal Nature Communications.
Giovanni Baccolo, a geologist at the University of Milan-Bicocca who authored a study on the jarosite discovery, shared his excitement on Twitter.
He tweeted: “Our work on #jarosite in deep ‘ice is out! This finding better explains how jarosite formed on #Mars.
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“[To the best of my knowledge], for the first time a Martian geochemical process is investigated through an #Antarctic #icecore (please correct me if I’m wrong). So excited!”
The researcher and his team drilled one mile into East Antarctica in search of minerals that were not jarosite.
Instead, he stumbled upon unusual particles which upon closer inspection with X-rays were confirmed as the rare mineral.
However, the researchers only discovered trace amounts of the stuff – smaller than a grain of sand.
The key difference between the amount of jarosite found on Earth and Mars could be the amount of dust present.
Simply put, there is more raw material on the Red Planet for the mineral to form.
He said: “Mars is such a dusty place – everything is covered in dust.”
More importantly, the discovery suggests jarosite on Earth formed in the same way it did on Mars and that could go a long way towards bridging the gap between the two planets.
Dr Baccolo said: “This is just the first step in linking deep Antarctic ice with the Martian environment.”
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