The Río Tinto Basin, Spain: Mineralogy, sedimentary geobiology, and implications for interpretation of outcrop rocks at Meridiani Planum, Mars
Exploration by the NASA rover Opportunity has revealed sulfate- and hematite-rich sedimentary rocks exposed in craters and other surface features of Meridiani Planum, Mars. Modern, Holocene, and Plio-Pleistocene deposits of the Río Tinto, southwestern Spain, provide at least a partial environmental analog to Meridiani Planum rocks, facilitating our understanding of Meridiani mineral precipitation and diagenesis, while informing considerations of martian astrobiology. Oxidation, thought to be biologically mediated, of pyritic ore bodies by groundwaters in the source area of the Río Tinto generates headwaters enriched in sulfuric acid and ferric iron. Seasonal evaporation of river water drives precipitation of hydronium jarosite and schwertmannite, while (Mg,Al,Fe 3+)-copiapite, coquimbite, gypsum, and other sulfate minerals precipitate nearby as efflorescences where locally variable source waters are brought to the surface by capillary action. During the wet season, hydrolysis of sulfate salts results in the precipitation of nanophase goethite. Holocene and Plio-Pleistocene terraces show increasing goethite crystallinity and then replacement of goethite with hematite through time. Hematite in Meridiani spherules also formed during diagenesis, although whether these replaced precursor goethite or precipitated directly from groundwaters is not known. The retention of jarosite and other soluble sulfate salts suggests that water limited the diagenesis of Meridiani rocks. Diverse prokaryotic and eukaryotic microorganisms inhabit acidic and seasonally dry Río Tinto environments. Organic matter does not persist in Río Tinto sediments, but biosignatures imparted to sedimentary rocks as macroscopic textures of coated microbial streamers, surface blisters formed by biogenic gas, and microfossils preserved as casts and molds in iron oxides help to shape strategies for astrobiological investigation of Meridiani outcrops.