A Study of the Sulfur Isotopic Composition of Martian Meteorites

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2012

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Title of Document: A STUDY OF THE SULFUR ISOTOPIC COMPOSITION OF MARTIAN METEORITES

Heather B. Franz, Ph.D., 2012

Directed By: Professor James Farquhar, Department of Geology and ESSIC

Sulfur is an important tracer for geochemical processes because it possesses four stable isotopes and forms natural compounds in a range of oxidation states. This element has been shown to undergo mass-independent isotopic fractionation (S-MIF) during laboratory photochemical experiments, which may provide clues to processes that have occurred both in the solar nebula and in planetary atmospheres. The surface of Mars has been found to contain ubiquitous sulfate minerals, marking this planet as an ideal candidate for sulfur isotope study.

The shergottites comprise the youngest group of martian meteorites and the most representative of mantle-derived igneous rocks. Extraction and isotopic measurement of sulfur from 30 shergottites yield the first estimate of the juvenile martian sulfur composition, which matches within uncertainties that of Cañon Diablo Troilite.  Analysis of martian meteorites spanning a range of ages from the shergottites, as young as ~150 Ma, to the nakhlites, ~1.3 Ga, reveals the presence of sulfur characterized by S-MIF compositions. These findings are interpreted as evidence for cycling of sulfur between an atmospheric reservoir where photochemical processing of sulfur-bearing gases occurred and a surface reservoir in which photochemical products were ultimately deposited. Anomalous sulfur has been detected in both sulfate and sulfide minerals, implying assimilation of sulfur from the martian surface into magmas. Differences in the S-MIF compositions of the nakhlites and shergottites may preserve a record of complementary sulfur formed by a single process or may indicate the operation of multiple photochemical processes at different times or geographical locations. 

Identification of the photochemical mechanism responsible for producing the anomalous sulfur observed in martian meteorites is important for constraining the atmospheric composition at the time the S-MIF signals were generated. Results of laboratory experiments with pure SO2 gas suggest that self-shielding is insufficient to explain the anomalous sulfur isotopic composition. This implies that an optically thick SO2 column in the martian atmosphere may not have been required for production of the observed signals

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