Geologist discovers martian mineral
(NC&T/QU) Geologist Ron Peterson's findings will be reported in the October issue of the journal, American Mineralogist. Dr. Peterson, who was invited to Houston last fall to present his original findings at the Johnson Space Center, continues to work with NASA scientists on Mars research.
The new mineral, meridianiite, is unusual because it is a planetary mineral and also thought to exist on the moons of Jupiter.
Also on the research team are Bruce Madu from the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources, Queen's Chemistry Professor Herb Shurvell, and high school student Will Nelson, from Ascroft, B.C.
The Queen's discovery was inspired by information sent back from Mars by the Mars Exploration Rover (MER), Opportunity, indicating that magnesium sulfate is present on that planet's surface. The rover also sent back photographs of voids in rocks that are thought to have originally contained crystals.
This supports the team's theory that regions of Mars were once covered with water, which later froze and then evaporated, leaving a residue of crystal molds in the sediment.
|Geology professor Ron Peterson discovered natural crystals in a frozen BC pond similar to ones that he grew in his garage -- and are also believed to exist on Mars. (Photo: Ron Peterson)|
Dr. Peterson wondered whether the same mineral might be found on Earth. In the fall of 2006 he located some ponds near Ashcroft in the Okanagan Valley of B.C., from which magnesium sulfate had once been mined. He then enlisted the help of a local high-school chemistry student to send him mineral samples from the ponds, by mail, throughout the fall.
In February 2007 Dr. Peterson visited the frozen ponds himself, and brought back crystals in a cooler packed with dry ice. These natural crystals were put through a series of tests, and in June meridianiite was approved as a new valid mineral species by the Commission on New Mineral names and Mineral Nomenclature of the International Mineralogical Association.
"The name was chosen to reflect the locality on Mars where a rover had observed crystal molds in sedimentary rock that are thought to be caused by minerals that have since dehydrated or dissolved," says Dr. Peterson. "Observations obtained by using the rover wheels to dig trenches into the Martian soil show that magnesium sulfate minerals have been deposited below the surface."
Between 20 and 30 new minerals are identified each year, the researcher notes, but "these often involve rare elements." Meridianiite, on the other hand, is formed from the common materials magnesium, sulfate and water.
A geologist who normally studies mine waste, Dr. Peterson admits he has been a "space geek" since childhood, and says that working on this project has been exciting. "It began with a moment of insight – based on my previous geological experience – and now I have the chance to collaborate with experts from around the world who are studying the geology of the Martian surface."
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