The Curiosity rover has documented lacustrine sediments at Gale Crater, but how liquid water became physically stable on the early Martian surface is a matter of significant debate. To constrain the composition of the early Martian atmosphere during sediment deposition, we experimentally investigated the nucleation and growth kinetics of authigenic Fe-minerals in Gale Crater mudstones. Experiments show that pH variations within anoxic basaltic waters trigger a series of mineral transformations that rapidly generate magnetite and H2(aq). Magnetite continues to form through this mechanism despite high partial pressure of carbon dioxide (pCO2) and supersaturation with respect to Fe-carbonate minerals. Reactive transport simulations that incorporate these experimental data show that groundwater infiltration into a lake equilibrated with a CO2-rich atmosphere can trigger the production of both magnetite and H2(aq) in the mudstones. H2(aq), generated at concentrations that would readily exsolve from solution, is capable of increasing annual mean surface temperatures above freezing in CO2-dominated atmospheres. We therefore suggest that magnetite authigenesis could have provided a short-term feedback for stabilizing liquid water, as well as a principal feedstock for biologically relevant chemical reactions, at the early Martian surface.

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We thank R. T. Pierrehumbert, A. Knoll and J. Grotzinger for enthusiasm and feedback. N.J.T acknowledges funding from Science and Technology Facilities Council grant ST/M004716/1. J.A.H. acknowledges funding from NASA grant NNX13AR09G. N.J.T. and J.A.H. thank Fondation des Treilles for support for a meeting that helped crystallize the research. We thank J. Catalano for comments that improved the quality of this manuscript.

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  1. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

    • Nicholas J. Tosca
    • , Imad A. M. Ahmed
    •  & Alice Ashpitel
  2. Department of Geoscience, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

    • Benjamin M. Tutolo
  3. Department of Geosciences, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY, USA

    • Joel A. Hurowitz


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N.J.T. and J.A.H. conceived the research, N.J.T., I.A.M.A. and A.A. performed the laboratory work, B.M.T. developed and executed the reactive transport calculations, and all authors analysed the data. N.J.T. wrote the paper with contributions from J.A.H., I.A.M.A and B.M.T.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Correspondence to Nicholas J. Tosca.

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