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Geologically rapid aqueous mineral alteration at subfreezing temperatures in icy worlds

This article has been updated


The most active icy worlds such as Europa or Enceladus are predicted to host extensive aqueous alteration driven by water–rock interactions at elevated temperatures1,2,3. On the other hand, it is assumed that such alteration is kinetically inhibited at the subzero temperatures of other icy worlds, such as the mid-sized moons of Saturn and Uranus or trans-Neptunian objects1,4. Here we perform aqueous alteration experiments on a chondrite-analogue material (olivine) and find that chemical alteration processes are still efficient at temperatures as low as −20 °C, as the presence of an unfrozen water film still allows olivine to dissolve in partially frozen alkaline solutions. We infer that aqueous alteration may be enhanced by salts and ammonia present in icy worlds, and therefore remains a geologically rapid process even at subzero temperatures. Our results imply that the primary chondritic minerals in most icy bodies exceeding 400–500 km in diameter will be completely altered to hydrous secondary minerals early in their evolutionary histories.

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Fig. 1: Characterization of the ice, unfrozen solution and ice–olivine interface.
Fig. 2: Measured [Si] and [Mg] over time and calculated olivine dissolution rates over temperature.
Fig. 3: Solid-state analysis of an olivine grain reacted in 0.8% NH3 for 442 d at −20 °C.

Data availability

The data that support the plots in Fig. 2 are provided in the Supplementary Information. These and all other data that support the figures, table and other findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

Change history

  • 10 March 2022

    In the version of this article initially published, an extraneous black overlay appeared beneath the colored atoms in Fig. 3b and has now been removed for clarity.


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We acknowledge financial support from the French Agence Nationale de Recherche, project ANR OASIS (grant ANR-16-CE31-0023-01). We thank Y. Marrocchi for the raw San Carlos olivine and SELFRAG AG (Kerzers, Switzerland) for the high-voltage pulsed-power fragmentation of the original San Carlos olivine sample. The use of equipment in the Potsdam Imaging and Spectral Analysis Facility (PISA) is acknowledged. We especially thank the European Regional Development Fund and the State of Brandenburg for the Themis Z TEM (part of PISA). Chemical analyses using ICP-AES and Brunauer–Emmett–Teller (BET) surface area measurements were performed at the geochemistry–mineralogy platform of ISTerre (UGA, Grenoble, France), partially funded by a grant from Labex OSUG@2020. We also thank A. Schreiber (GFZ) for her help in developing the FIB technique used and N. Findling (ISTerre) for assistance with the subzero alteration experiments.

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Authors and Affiliations



L.T. designed the project. A.Z. performed the experiments, ICP-AES analyses and geochemical modelling. R.H. evaluated the kinetic behaviour of olivine dissolution and interpreted TEM results with V.R. FIB and TEM work was carried out by V.R. Raman analyses were performed and interpreted by M.M. The manuscript was written by A.Z., R.H., G.T. and L.T., with contributions from all coauthors. All coauthors contributed to the discussion and interpretation of the data.

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Correspondence to Amber Zandanel.

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Nature Astronomy thanks Ashley King, Yasuhito Sekine and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Methods, Figs. 1–9 and Tables 1–11.

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Zandanel, A., Hellmann, R., Truche, L. et al. Geologically rapid aqueous mineral alteration at subfreezing temperatures in icy worlds. Nat Astron 6, 554–559 (2022).

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