a1 SETI Institute, 189 Bernardo Avenue, Mountain View, CA 94043, USA
a2 NASA Ames Research Center, Mail Stop 245-3, Moffett Field, CA 94035, USA
a3 Geophysical Laboratory, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 5251 Broad Branch Road NW, Washington, DC 20015, USA
Carbonate rocks in the Mojave Desert are presented as potential analogues for the carbonates on Mars. Rocks collected from the Little Red Hill site contain iron oxide-bearing coatings that greatly suppress the spectral features due to carbonate of the underlying material and impart a spectral slope. The Mojave Desert was formerly a lush pedogenic soil environment that, over time, transformed into the current arid climate with abundant rock varnish. One niche for microbes in the current desolate environment is inside and underneath the rocks where the microbes profit from solar protection by the iron oxide rock coatings. Carbonates were long predicted to be present on Mars and have recently been detected by instruments on Phoenix and MER and using hyperspectral orbiters such as the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) and the Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES). We describe here the results of a study of carbonate rocks from the Little Red Hill site of the Mojave Desert that includes X-ray diffraction (XRD), chemistry and visible-infrared reflectance spectroscopy. Coatings on the carbonate rocks greatly reduced the strength of the carbonate bands and caused changes in the shape of some bands. We compare these data with a carbonate outcrop at Nili Fossae, Mars. If microbes once inhabited Mars, similar carbonate rocks with iron oxide coatings could have provided a UV-protected niche there as well. Thus, analysis of carbonate-bearing regions on Mars by future landers would be useful sites to search for biosignatures.
(Received April 08 2011)
(Accepted May 11 2011)
(Online publication July 01 2011)