Study shows that chondrite-like materials can undergo chemical weathering processes at sub-zero temperatures


nature astronomy (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41550-022-01613-2″ width=”800″ height=”423″/>

Fig. 1: Characterization of ice, unfrozen solution and ice-olivine interface. Credit: natural astronomy (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41550-022-01613-2

A team of researchers affiliated with several institutions in France and one in Germany has discovered that chondrite-like materials can undergo chemical weathering processes at subzero temperatures. In their article published in the journal natural astronomythe group describes subjecting a chondrite analogue (olivine) to conditions similar to other worlds in the solar system.

Previous research has shown that chemical reactions between water and rock on other worlds (or moons) can make them geologically active and possibly habitable. And so far space scientists have assumed that these bodies must be reasonably warm (above freezing) for the interactions to occur – thus cold bodies, such as many icy moons, are excluded from consideration as habitable entities. In practice, this meant that only the moons closest to their host planets were considered potentially habitable. In the new effort, the researchers noted that close-up images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus (courtesy Cassini) in 2008 showed the likelihood of subterranean oceans and water ice plumes seeping from the surface in the south polar region. These features suggested that water/rock chemical reactions were occurring despite sub-zero temperatures. To better understand what might be going on, they conducted experiments in their lab with a chondrite-like material.

The work was to use olivine as a chondrite analog of surficial material found on Enceladus. They dissolved several samples in an alkaline solution and placed them each in insulated containers at three temperatures: -20, 4 and 22°C. They kept the samples for 442 days. During monitoring, they found that water/rock chemical reactions were occurring in all of them, even though one of them was in a sub-freezing environment. They suggest that the reason such interactions occurred was due to the formation of a film of water between the ice and the rock that remained unfrozen during the experiment. They conclude that chondrite minerals on icy bodies of a certain size can undergo water/rock chemical reactions, allowing them to be included as possible habitable bodies.

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More information:
Amber Zandanel et al, Geologically rapid aqueous mineral weathering at sub-zero temperatures in icy worlds, natural astronomy (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41550-022-01613-2

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