A multidisciplinary study of silica sinter deposits with applications to silica identification and detection of fossil life on Mars

Preston, L. J.; Benedix, G. K.; Genge, M. J. and Sephton, M. K. (2008). A multidisciplinary study of silica sinter deposits with applications to silica identification and detection of fossil life on Mars. Icarus, 198(2) pp. 331–350.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.icarus.2008.08.006

Abstract

Surface features observed on Mars and evidence from martian meteorites both suggest that hydrothermal systems have operated in the crust of the planet. Hydrothermal systems are a potential habitat for living organisms and identifying these on Mars is, therefore, important in the search for life beyond the Earth. One of the surface expressions of hydrothermal systems on Earth are silica sinters, deposited during the cooling of hydrothermal solutions. In this paper we present analyses of the mineralogy, textures, chemistry and organic chemistry of silica sinters from two very different geothermal provinces, Waiotapu, New Zealand and Haukadalur, Iceland, in order to determine common features by which silica sinters can be identified. Infrared reflectance spectroscopy was utilised in combination with textural studies to evaluate the mineralogy of sinter deposits in terms of the abundances of different polymorphs of SiO2. Concentrations of organic molecules, principally lipids, within regions of the sinters in which there is textural evidence for micro-organisms were identified in the infrared spectral data and their presence was confirmed using gas chromatography mass spectroscopy. The results of this study indicate that reflectance spectra in the wavelength region from 2.5 to 14 μm, when calibrated against natural terrestrial analogues, can be used to identify silica sinters, as well as the possible presence of recent microbial communities on Mars.

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