Mineralogy and geochemistry of sedimentary rocks and eolian sediments in Gale crater, Mars: A review after six Earth years of exploration with Curiosity

the MSL Science Team

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89 Scopus citations


The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover arrived at Mars in August 2012 with a primary goal of characterizing the habitability of ancient and modern environments. Curiosity was sent to Gale crater to study a sequence of ∼3.5 Ga old sedimentary rocks that, based on orbital visible and near- to short-wave infrared reflectance spectra, contain secondary minerals that suggest deposition and/or alteration in liquid water. The sedimentary sequence in the lower slopes of Mount Sharp in Gale crater preserves a dramatic shift on early Mars from a relatively warm and wet climate to a cold and dry climate, based on a transition from smectite-bearing strata to sulfate-bearing strata. The rover is equipped with instruments to examine the sedimentology and identify compositional changes in the stratigraphy. The Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument is one of two internal laboratories on Curiosity and includes a transmission X-ray diffractometer (XRD) and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer. CheMin measures loose sediment samples scooped from the surface and drilled rock powders, and the XRD provides quantitative mineralogy to a detection limit of ∼1 wt.% for crystalline phases. Curiosity has traversed >20 km since landing and has primarily been exploring an ancient lake environment fed by streams and groundwater. Of the 19 drilled rock samples analyzed by CheMin as of sol 2300 (January 2019), 15 are from fluvio-lacustrine deposits that comprise the Bradbury and Murray formations. Most of these samples were drilled from units that did not have a clear mineralogical signature from orbit. Results from CheMin demonstrate an astounding diversity in the mineralogy of these rocks that signifies geochemical variations in source rocks, transportation mechanisms, and depositional and diagenetic fluids. Most detrital igneous minerals are basaltic, but the discovery in a few samples of abundant silicate minerals that usually crystallize from evolved magmas on Earth remains enigmatic. Trioctahedral smectite and magnetite at the base of the section may have formed from low-salinity pore waters with a circumneutral pH in lake sediments. A transition to dioctahedral smectite, hematite, and Ca-sulfate going up section suggests a change to more saline and oxidative aqueous conditions in the lake waters themselves and/or in diagenetic fluids. Perhaps one of the biggest mysteries revealed by CheMin is the high abundance of X-ray amorphous materials (15–73 wt.%) in all samples drilled or scooped to date. CheMin has analyzed three modern eolian sands, which have helped constrain sediment transport and mineral segregation across the active Bagnold Dune Field. Ancient eolian sandstones drilled from the Stimson formation differ from modern eolian sands in that they contain abundant magnetite but no olivine, suggesting that diagenetic processes led to the alteration of olivine to release Fe(II) and precipitate magnetite. Fracture-associated halos in the Stimson and the Murray formations are evidence for complex aqueous processes long after the streams and lakes vanished from Gale crater. The sedimentology and composition of the rocks analyzed by Curiosity demonstrate that habitable environments persisted intermittently on the surface or in the subsurface of Gale crater for perhaps more than a billion years.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number125605
JournalChemie der Erde
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2020


  • CheMin
  • Mars
  • Mars Science Laboratory
  • Mineralogy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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