Acidic volatiles and the Mars soil


  • A. Banin,

  • F. X. Han,

  • I. Kan,

  • A. Cicelsky


Large portions of Mars' surface are covered with deposits of fine, homogeneous, weathered dusty-soil material. Nanophase iron oxides, silicate mineraloids, and salts prevail in the soil. The mode of formation of this somewhat peculiar type of soil is still far from being clear. One scenario suggests that weathering took place during early epochs when Mars may have been “warm and wet”. The properties of the soil are not easily reconciled with this scenario. We propose another possible scenario that attributes, in part, the peculiar nature of the Martian dust and soil to a relatively “young” weathering product formed during the last few hundreds of millions of years in a process that involves acidic volatiles. We tested this hypothesis in an experimental study of the first step of acidolytic weathering of a partly palagonitized volcanic tephra of hawaiitic lava origin, using sulfuric, hydrochloric and nitric acids and their mixtures. The tephra effectively “neutralize” the added acidity. The protonic acidity added to the tephra attacks the primary minerals, releasing Fe, Al, and Mg, which control the pH, acting as Lewis-acid species of varying acid strengths. The full amount of acidity added to the tephra is stored in it, but only a very small fraction is preserved as the original protonic acidity. The majority of the added sulfate and chloride were present as salts and easily solubilized minerals. Well-crystallized sulfate salt minerals of aluminum and calcium were detected by powder X ray diffractometry, whereas secondary magnesium and iron minerals were not detected, due probably to lack of crystallinity. The presence of gypsum (CaSO4·2 H2O) and alunogen (Al2(SO4)3·17 H2O) is probably responsible for the observed increased hygroscopicity of the acidified tephra and their tendency to form hardened crusts. We suggest that if this mechanism is of importance on Mars, then the chemically weathered component of the Martian soil consists of a salt-rich mineral mixture containing the salts of the anionicligands SO4 and Cl resulting from volatiles emitted from volcanoes during more recent eruptions (up to 109 years B.P.). The lack of liquid water on Mars surface during that time slowed or halted mineralogical evolution into highly crystallized minerals having large mineral grains. The chemically weathered components are mixed with the products of physical weathering. The recently formed soil may cover and coat more evolved, hydrothermally modified, mineral deposits formed in earlier epochs of Mars.