Amorphous phases are detected over large regions of the Martian surface from orbit and in more localized deposits by rovers on the surface. Amorphous silicates can be primary or secondary in origin, both having formed through very different processes, so the unambiguous identification of these phases is important for understanding the geologic history of Mars. Secondary amorphous silicates are poorly understood and underrepresented in spectral libraries because they lack the long-range structural order that makes their crystalline counterparts identifiable in most analytical techniques. Fortunately, even amorphous materials have some degree of short-range order so that distinctions can be made with careful characterization.
Two sets of laboratory experiments were used to produce and characterize amorphous weathering products under probable conditions for the Martian surface, and one global spectral analysis using thermal-infrared (TIR) data from the Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) instrument was used to constrain variations in amorphous silicates across the Martian surface. The first set of experiments altered crystalline and glassy basalt samples in an open system under strong (pH 1) and moderate (pH 3) acidic conditions. The second set of experiments simulated a current-day Martian weathering scenario involving transient liquid water where basalt glass weathering solutions, formed in circumneutral (pH ~5.5 and 7) conditions, were rapidly evaporated, precipitating amorphous silicates. The samples were characterized using visible and near-infrared (VNIR) spectroscopy, TIR spectroscopy, scanning electron microscopy (SEM), energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS), and X-ray diffraction (XRD).
All experiments formed amorphous silicate phases that are new to spectral libraries. Moderately acidic alteration experiments produced no visible or spectral evidence of alteration products, whereas exposure of basalt glass to strongly acidic fluids produced silica-rich alteration layers that are spectrally consistent with VNIR and TIR spectra from the circum-polar region of Mars, indicating this region has undergone acidic weathering. Circum-netural pH basalt weathering solution precipitates are consistent with amorphous materials measured by rovers in soil and rock surface samples in Gale and Gusev Craters, suggesting transient water interactions over the last 3 billion years. Global spectral analyses determine that alteration conditions have varied across the Martian surface, and that alteration has been long lasting.