Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Geological Sciences

First Advisor

Brian M. Hynek

Second Advisor

Alexis Templeton

Third Advisor

Julio Sepulveda


The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover is equipped with CheMin, the first x-ray diffraction (XRD) instrument on Mars, for in situ mineralogy as part of its mission to seek evidence of past habitability at Gale Crater. Detection and characterization of hydrated minerals like clays and sulfates provides crucial insight into Mars’ early geochemistry. For example, clays are often interpreted as having formed in lacustrine environments at neutral pHs, while sulfates such as jarosite are evidence of acid sulfate alteration.

However, CheMin’s inability to remove non-clay minerals and to preferentially orient samples may pose significant challenges to clay detection and characterization at Gale Crater. To evaluate the effect of particle size separation (<0.2 µm), removal of non-clay minerals, preferred orientation, and ethylene glycol solvation on XRD analyses of clays, we used both a CheMin analog instrument and a traditional laboratory XRD to identify clays in acid sulfate altered basalt from Mars analog sites in Costa Rica. We detected kaolinite in four of the fourteen samples studied, one of which also contained montmorillonite. Kaolinite was not detected in two samples with the analog instrument prior to clay isolation. These results suggest that CheMin may miss detection of some clays at Gale Crater, which could affect interpretations of early Mars’ habitability.

Mistaking iron-rich natroalunite (Na[Al,Fe]3(SO4)2(OH)6) for jarosite (KFe3(SO4)2(OH)6) could also impact interpretations of early Mars, as natroalunite can form over a broader range of pH, water:rock ratios, and redox conditions than can jarosite. To determine if iron-rich natroalunite is a common alteration product at Mars analog sites, we assessed iron content in natroalunite from Costa Rica. We detected up to ~30% iron substitution in natroalunite at diverse geochemical settings. We also evaluated the feasibility of using XRD or Raman spectroscopy for in situ iron-rich natroalunite detection, and determined that CheMin on Curiosity and the Raman Laser Spectrometer on the upcoming ExoMars rover could detect natroalunite with ≥25% iron substitution. Distinguishing between iron-rich natroalunite and jarosite with CheMin could aid in interpreting geochemical conditions and habitability at Gale Crater.