As NASA continues to work on creating a safe journey for astronauts to Mars and back, scientists have made a very interesting discovery much closer to home. A team from Ahmedabad’s Space Applications Centre (SAC-ISRO), IIT-Kharagpur and the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI), in Hyderabad, discovered a replica of the Red Planet’s surface, or a‘terrestrial analogue,’ in Gujarat’s Kutch district. It’s a major discovery for the scientific world which could significantly alter the way the surface of Mars is to be further explored.
Among the discoveries is jarosite, a mineral that NASA’s Mars exploration rover Opportunity reportedly earlier found on the Red Planet. Jarosite was identified and documented by the team in Matanumadh, about 85 kilometres away from Bhuj, using spectroscopic techniques, and the work is part of a larger programme launched by SAC-ISRO under its Mars mission. “The landscape of Matanumadh with its unusual mineral assemblage, including jarosite, in a basalt terrain, mimics the geological environment of many of the identified jarosite localities on Mars,” said Saibal Gupta from IIT-Kharagpur.
Jarosite naturally occurs in very limited environments. It requires ‘extreme and unusual’ conditions for it to form and stabilise. “The Martian surface must, at some time, have experienced these conditions. Thus, the positive identification of jarosite, in addition to the previously reported minerals natroalunite and minamiite, is a major argument in favour of the Matanumadh Formation representing a Martian analogue locality,” states Souvik Mitra, of IIT-Kharagpur. He also lists near-surface acidic water and oxidising conditions as requirements for the formation of jarosite. “Understanding how jarosite formed in the Matanumadh Formation may shed light on the final stages of aqueous (water-based) activity in parts of the Martian surface.” The researchers make quite a claim noting the site at Matanumadh as closer in likeness to the surface of Mars than the better-known jarosite spots in Western Australia in a study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets in March.
“The landscape of Matanumadh with its unusual mineral assemblage, including jarosite, in a basalt terrain, mimics the geological environment of many of the identified jarosite localities on Mars,” Saibal Gupta, professor in Department of Geology and Geophysics at IIT-Kharagpur, told IANS. Gupta points out how sites such as the one at Matanumadh can be used to better understand and investigate Mars, its environment and its past, at a lower cost rather than sending up expensive robots to the planet. “This is no substitute to human exploration of the Martian surface, but that could be quite some time in the future. Till then, these analog localities provide a starting point for knowing what to expect...In fact, this work is a demonstration of what collaboration between scientists from different organisations within India can do, and SAC-ISRO is to be commended for this endeavour,” Gupta added.
Words: Sara Hussain