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Deep crustal carbonate rocks exposed by meteor impact on Mars


The surface of Mars is cold, dry, oxidizing, acidic and inhospitable to life. Similar conditions may have persisted for billions of years, suggesting that the best place to search for habitable environments is the subsurface1. One hint of habitable conditions at depth is the presence of atmospheric methane, which may have formed through hydrothermal processes in the crust2,3 in the presence of CO2. The observation of hydrated minerals excavated by some impact craters suggests that ancient hydrothermal systems may have existed in the subsurface4,5,6,7,8,9, but until now, none of those deposits has been linked to carbonate minerals and CO2-rich environments. Previous detections of carbonate minerals10 that could be linked to an ancient CO2-rich surface environment11 have been sparse. Here we show spectral evidence for carbonate- and phyllosilicate-bearing, layered and foliated bedrock exhumed from deep (about 6 km) within the martian crust by a meteor impact. The mineral assemblage, textural properties and geologic context of the deposits indicate that these rocks are probably ancient sediments that were metamorphosed during burial by younger volcanic materials from the nearby Syrtis Major volcano. We suggest that these buried layered carbonates might be only a small part of a much more extensive ancient carbonate sedimentary record that has been buried by volcanic resurfacing and impact ejecta. Our discovery may help explain the origin of other carbonates on Mars and indicates a high-priority site for future exobiological exploration.

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Figure 1: Regional context and geomorphology of altered crust in the central peak of Leighton Crater.
Figure 2: Spectral detection of carbonates and phyllosilicates.
Figure 3: Texture of altered rocks.
Figure 4: Interpreted context of observed spectral signatures.


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Financial support for this work was provided by the Mars Data Analysis Program, grant #NNX09AN16G. The work was improved by discussions with E. N. Dobrea, J. Carter, F. Poulet, A. Baldridge, S. Wright, R. Milliken and A. Tripathy. This work benefited greatly from Mars data sets and JMARS software hosted by Arizona State University at: and from the use of CRISM data analysis tools made available by the CRISM science team.

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J.R.M. wrote most of the manuscript and processed the remote sensing data; P.B.N. helped develop many ideas and wrote some sections of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Joseph R. Michalski.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Michalski, J., Niles, P. Deep crustal carbonate rocks exposed by meteor impact on Mars. Nature Geosci 3, 751–755 (2010).

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