alexa Importance of a Martian Hematite Site for Astrobiology

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Importance of a Martian Hematite Site for Astrobiology

Defining locations where conditions may have been favorable for life is a key objective for the exploration of Mars. Of prime importance are sites where conditions may have been favorable for the preservation of evidence of prebiotic or biotic processes. Areas displaying significant concentrations of the mineral hematite (α-Fe2O3), recently identified by thermal emission spectrometry, may have significance in the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Since iron oxides can form as aqueous mineral precipitates, the potential exists to preserve microscopic evidence of life in iron oxide-depositing ecosystems. Terrestrial hematite deposits proposed as possible analogs for hematite deposits on Mars include massive (banded) iron formations, iron oxide hydrothermal deposits, iron-rich laterites and ferricrete soils, and rock varnish. We report the potential for long-term preservation of microfossils by iron oxide mineralization in specimens of the ~2,100-Ma banded iron deposit of the Gunflint Formation, Canada. Scanning and analytical electron microscopy reveals micrometer-scale rods, spheres, and filaments consisting predominantly of iron and oxygen with minor carbon. We interpret these objects as microbial cells permineralized by an iron oxide, presumably hematite. The confirmation of ancient martian microbial life in hematite deposits will require the return of samples to terrestrial laboratories. A hematite-rich deposit composed of aqueous iron oxide precipitates may thus prove to be a prime site for future sample return.

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