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Earthly rocks point way to water hidden on Mars

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Rudolf Hermann named his mineral turgite in 1844, while August Breithaupt named his mineral hydrohematite in 1847. Other mineralogists, according to Heaney, declared these two studies wrong in 1920, using the then-newly discovered X-ray diffraction technique. 

However, the emerging technology was insufficient to distinguish between hematite and hydrohematite. Si Athena Chen, Heaney's geosciences Ph.D. student, started by collecting a range of historical samples of what had previously been identified as containing water.

Heaney and Chen were able to secure a little fragment of Breithaupt's original sample, a Smithsonian Institution sample identified as tergite, and, astonishingly, five samples from Penn State's Frederick Augustus Genth collection. Chen demonstrated that these minerals were indeed light on iron and had hydroxyl — a hydrogen and oxygen group — substituted for some of the iron atoms after multiple examinations using a variety of instruments including infrared spectroscopy and synchrotron X-ray diffraction, a more sensitive and refined method than used in the mid-19th century. 

The hydroxyl in the mineral is water that has been stored

"Hydrohematite is widespread in low-temperature occurrences of iron oxide on Earth, and by extension, it may inventory substantial quantities of water in ostensibly arid planetary environments, such as the surface of Mars," the researchers wrote in the journal Geology.

"I was trying to figure out what the natural conditions were for iron oxide formation," Chen explained. 

"Could you tell me what temperatures and pH were required to crystallize these hydrous phases, and could you tell me how to manufacture them?" 

She discovered that in a wet, alkaline environment, hydrohematite may precipitate out and create sedimentary layers at temperatures below 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Heaney explained that "most of Mars' surface appears to have developed when the surface was wetter and iron oxides precipitated from that water." "However, the presence of hydrohematite on Mars is still a matter of conjecture."

Hematite is what NASA's Opportunity rover discovered as "blueberries" in 2004. Although the latest Mars rovers contain X-ray diffraction equipment, they are not smart enough to distinguish between hematite and hydrohematite.

"These spherical structures on Earth are hydrohematite," Heaney said, "therefore it seems plausible to hypothesize that the brilliant red stones on Mars are hydrohematite." Anhydrous hematite, which lacks water, and hydrohematite, which contains water, are two different colors, with hydrohematite being redder or possessing dark red streaks, according to the study.

According to Chen's research, naturally occurring hydrohematite contains 3.6 percent to 7.8% water by weight, while goethite has roughly 10% water by weight. 

The amount of hydrated iron minerals identified on Mars suggests that there could be a significant water reserve there, according to the experts. The red planet gets its name from the iron compounds in the Martian soil, which give it its hue.  The presence of hydrohematite on Mars, according to the researchers, would provide additional proof that Mars was once a watery planet because water is the one compound required for all life forms on Earth.

Jeffrey E. Post, mineralogist, and curator in charge of gems and minerals, Smithsonian Institution; Timothy B. Fischer, Chevron, Houston; Peter J. Eng, research professor, Consortium for Advanced Radiation Sources and the James Franck Institute, University of Chicago; and Joanne E. Stubbs, research associate professor, Consortium for Advanced Radiation Sources and the James Franck Institute, University of Chicago; and Joanne E. Stubbs, research associate professor, Consortium for Advanced Radiation Sources