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Abstract

Understanding of the geologic evolution of Mars has been greatly improved by recent orbital1,2,3, in situ4,5 and meteorite6,7,8 data, but insights into the earliest period of Martian magmatism (4.1 to 3.7 billion years ago) remain scarce9. The landing site of NASA’s Curiosity rover, Gale crater, which formed 3.61 billion years ago10 within older terrain11, provides a window into this earliest igneous history. Along its traverse, Curiosity has discovered light-toned rocks that contrast with basaltic samples found in younger regions12. Here we present geochemical data and images of 22 specimens analysed by Curiosity that demonstrate that these light-toned materials are feldspar-rich magmatic rocks. The rocks belong to two distinct geochemical types: alkaline compositions containing up to 67 wt% SiO2 and 14 wt% total alkalis (Na2O + K2O) with fine-grained to porphyritic textures on the one hand, and coarser-grained textures consistent with quartz diorite and granodiorite on the other hand. Our analysis reveals unexpected magmatic diversity and the widespread presence of silica- and feldspar-rich materials in the vicinity of the landing site at Gale crater. Combined with the identification of feldspar-rich rocks elsewhere9,13,14 and the low average density of the crust in the Martian southern hemisphere15, we conclude that silica-rich magmatic rocks may constitute a significant fraction of ancient Martian crust and may be analogous to the earliest continental crust on Earth.

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Change history

  • 30 July 2015

    In the AOP version of this Letter, references 31–43 were numbered out of order. This has now been corrected for all versions of the Letter.

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Acknowledgements

The Mars Science Laboratory team is gratefully acknowledged. We would like also to thank D. Baratoux for helpful comments on the manuscript. This research was carried out with financial support from NASA’s Mars Exploration Program in the US and in France with the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. IMPMC, Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, 75005 Paris, France

    • V. Sautter
  2. IRAP, 31400 Toulouse, France

    • M. J. Toplis
    • , A. Cousin
    • , O. Gasnault
    • , S. Maurice
    • , O. Forni
    • , J. Lasue
    • , P.-Y. Meslin
    • , P. Pinet
    •  & W. Rapin
  3. Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico 87545, USA

    • R. C. Wiens
    • , N. Lanza
    •  & S. Clegg
  4. GeoRessources-Université de Lorraine, 54500 Vandoeuvre les Nancy, France

    • C. Fabre
  5. Chevron Energy Technology Company, Houston, Texas 77056, USA

    • A. Ollila
  6. Space Research Centre, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester, LE1 7RH, UK

    • J. C. Bridges
  7. LPG, BP 92208, 44322 Nantes, France

    • N. Mangold
    •  & L. Le Deit
  8. College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon 97331, USA

    • S. Le Mouélic
  9. Institut de Planétologie et d’Astrophysique, BP 53, F-38041 Grenoble, France

    • M. Fisk
    •  & P. Beck
  10. Caltech, Pasadena, California 91125, USA

    • E. M. Stolper
  11. Institute of Meteoritics, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87106, USA

    • H. Newsom
  12. Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts 01075, USA

    • D. Dyar
  13. Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona 85719, USA

    • D. Vaniman
  14. Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia 30332, USA

    • J. J. Wray

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Contributions

V.S. conceived the manuscript, analysed data, directed the research and wrote the manuscript; M.J.T. conceived and wrote the manuscript; R.C.W. directed the research, and processed the data; A.C., C.F., O.G., S.M., O.F., J.L., A.O., J.C.B. and P.-Y.M. analysed and processed the data; N.M., S.L.M., L.L.D. M.F. and W.R. contributed to interpretation of the data and prepared the figures; E.M.S. contributed to the interpretation and revision of the manuscript; H.N., D.D., N.L., D.V. and S.C. were involved at various stages in data processing; P.P., P.B. and J.J.W. contributed in providing the orbital and in situ optical spectroscopic context and related state of knowledge in Martian crustal mineralogy. All authors contributed to the writing and revision of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to V. Sautter.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2474