A Spectral Comparison of Jarosites Using Techniques Relevant to the Robotic Exploration of Biosignatures on Mars.

Research paper by Liane L Loiselle, Michael A MA McCraig, M Darby MD Dyar, Richard R Léveillé, Sean R SR Shieh, Gordon G Southam

Indexed on: 20 Dec '18Published on: 20 Dec '18Published in: Life (Basel, Switzerland)


The acidic sulfate-rich waters of the Meridiani Planum region were potentially a habitable environment for iron-oxidizing bacteria on ancient Mars. If life existed in this ancient martian environment, jarosite minerals precipitating in these waters may record evidence of this biological activity. Since the Meridiani jarosite is thermodynamically stable at the martian surface, any biosignatures preserved in the jarosites may be readily available for analysis in the current surface sediments during the ongoing robotic exploration of Mars. However, thermal decomposition experiments indicate that organic compound detection of sediments containing jarosite may be challenging when using pyrolysis experiments; the instrument commonly used to assess organic matter in martian samples. So, here, we assess if the biogenicity of the Meridiani-type jarosites can be determined using complimentary spectroscopic techniques also utilized during the robotic exploration of Mars, including the upcoming ExoMars2020 rover mission. An abiotic jarosite, synthesized following established protocols, and a biological jarosite counterpart, derived from a microbial enrichment culture of Rio Tinto river sediments, were used to compare four spectroscopy techniques employed in the robotic exploration of Mars (Raman spectroscopy, mid-infrared (IR) spectroscopy, visible near-infrared reflectance (VNIR) spectroscopy and Mössbauer spectroscopy) to determine if the complimentary information obtained using these instruments can help elucidate the biological influence of Meridiani-type jarosites. Raman spectral differences might be due to the presence of unreacted reagents in the synthetic spectra and not biological contributions. Reflectance (IR/VNIR) spectra might exhibit minor organic absorption contributions, but are observed in both sample spectra, and do not represent a biosignature. Mössbauer spectra show minor differences in fit parameters that are related to crystal morphology and are unrelated to the biological (i.e., organic) component of the system. Results of this study suggest that the identification of biosignatures in Meridiani-type jarosites using the in situ robotic exploration on Mars may be possible but will be challenging. Our work provides additional insight into extraterrestrial biosignature detection and data interpretation for Mars exploration and indicates that sample return missions are likely required to unequivocally resolve the possible biogenicity of the Meridiani sediments or other jarosite-containing sediments.