Press Release

Earth Has ‘Blueberries’ Like Mars – ‘Moqui Marbles’ Formed in Groundwater in Utah’s National Parks

By SpaceRef Editor
June 17, 2004
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Earth Has ‘Blueberries’ Like Mars – ‘Moqui Marbles’ Formed in Groundwater in Utah’s National Parks

Even before marble-shaped pebbles nicknamed “blueberries” were
discovered on Mars by the Opportunity rover, University of Utah
geologists studied similar rocks in Utah’s national parks and
predicted such stones would be found on the Red Planet.

In a study published in the June 17 issue of the journal Nature, the
Utah researchers suggest both the Martian and Utah rocks —
known as hematite concretions — formed underground when
minerals precipitated from flowing groundwater.

“We came up with the ‘recipe’ for blueberries,” says Marjorie Chan,
chair and professor of geology and geophysics at the University of
Utah. “Before Opportunity landed, we thought there might be
hematite concretions on Mars. That was based on our study of
hematite-rich regions of southern Utah, where hematite balls are
found in national parks and have long been a geological oddity that
shows up in many rock shops.”

The round rocks are found in southern Utah in Zion and Capitol
Reef national parks, Grand Staircase-Escalante National
Monument, Snow Canyon State Park and the Moab area.

Their diameters range from one-25th of an inch to 8 inches or more.
They are known to New Agers as “moqui marbles.” Some are the
size of small blueberries like those on Mars.

Chan and her colleagues believe the Utah concretions formed
perhaps 25 million years ago when minerals precipitated from
groundwater flowing through much older Navajo sandstone, the
spectacular red rock in southern Utah.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Opportunity
robot rover vehicle landed on Mars’ Meridiani Planum on Jan. 25.
Five days later, it detected hematite within gray pebbles dotting the
landing site, and such pebbles later were spotted embedded in a
rock outcrop. Cornell University scientist Steve Squyres, who heads
the Opportunity science team, said Feb. 9 the small spheres look
“like blueberries in a muffin” and might be concretions.

In their Nature paper, Chan and colleagues say the Martian
“blueberries” may have formed in a similar manner to those in Utah,
namely, when significant volumes of groundwater flowed through
permeable rock, and chemical reactions triggered minerals to
precipitate and start forming a layered, spherical ball.

“Given the similarities between the marbles in Utah and on Mars,
additional scientific scrutiny of the Utah concretions and how they
form will probably shed further light on the similar phenomenon on
Mars,” University of Washington scientist David Catling wrote in a
Nature commentary accompanying the University of Utah study.

The concretions may bear on the search for evidence of past life on
Mars because bacteria on Earth can make concretions form more
quickly. Chan and colleagues plan to analyze whether there is
evidence of past microbial activity in Utah concretions.

Chan conducted the new study with geology graduate student
Brenda Beitler and emeritus professor of geology Bill Parry, both at
the University of Utah; geologist Jens Ormo of the National Institute
of Aerospace Technology in Madrid, Spain; and planetary scientist
Goro Komatsu of the International Research School of Planetary
Sciences at G. d’Annunzio University in Pescara, Italy.

Martian blueberries and marbles of the spirits

The Utah and Mars hematite concretions have similarities and

In Utah and likely on Mars, “you have rocks that had iron in them
originally,” says Beitler. “Fluids travel through these rocks and leach
out the iron. The water moves through cracks, holes, layers or
pores until it reaches some place where the chemistry is different
and causes the iron to precipitate out of the water as hematite.”

A major difference is that the Martian “blueberries” probably are
pure hematite — a form of iron oxide that is gray because it has a
larger crystal structure than the reddish form of iron oxide,
commonly known as rust. The Utah concretions are mostly
sandstone, cemented by hematite that makes up a few percent to
perhaps one-third of the rock. The Martian concretions likely
precipitated from acidic groundwater. Those in Utah precipitated
when hydrocarbon-rich, briny fluids encountered oxygen-rich

After the Utah concretions formed in groundwater, the surrounding
Navajo sandstone slowly eroded away over millions of years, so the
hard, erosion-resistant concretions accumulated on the ground,
often in great numbers.

“The loose Utah concretions roll like marbles into depressions,
forming ‘puddles,’ just like their Martian counterparts,” Catling wrote.
“The Hopi Indians have a legend that ‘moqui,’ or spirits of their
ancestors, played games of marbles with the hematite concretions
in the American southwest. Although anthropologists discourage
use of the word ‘moqui’ to be respectful to Native Americans, New
Age gem collectors sell concretions as ‘moqui marbles’ and claim
that they are endowed with metaphysical powers.”

Hematite, water and life

In 1998, the Mars Global Surveyor orbiting Mars detected what
appeared to be a large area of hematite on Meridiani Planum. The
broad plain was picked as Opportunity’s landing site because
scientists wanted to study the hematite, which almost always forms
in water.

Scientists are interested in whether water once existed on Mars (or
now exists beneath its surface) because water is necessary for life –
– and the possibility of life beyond Earth is one of the great
questions long pondered by humanity.

“On Earth, whenever we find water, we find life — in surface water
or underground water, hot water or cold water — any place there is
water on Earth there are microbes, there is life,” says study co-
author Bill Parry. “That’s the bottom line: hematite is linked to life.”

While other evidence from Opportunity suggests there once may
have been standing water on Meridiani Planum, the Utah team’s
study strongly indicates the Martian “blueberries” probably formed
in groundwater and not in surface water.

“The ‘blueberries’ easily could have formed in groundwater before
there was standing water, if that did exist,” Chan says.

Other scientists previously offered various explanations for
Meridiani Planum’s hematite, including that the mineral precipitated
in large lakes or in hot springs when Mars’ ancient volcanoes were
active, or that hematite was left when water leached away other
minerals, or that it formed when volcanic ash deposits were altered

Like Southern Utah, Like Mars

Chan says her team long suspected concretions like those in Utah
might be found on Mars. The idea first was suggested by Ormo and
Komatsu in a 2003 scientific abstract that got little if any attention.
Ormo contacted Chan in spring 2003 and they started collaborating.

The researchers completed a much broader but yet-unpublished
study last year indicating that several geological features were seen
both in aerial photos of southern Utah’s hematite-rich areas and in
images of Mars’ hematite regions taken by orbiting spacecraft.
These features include large rocky landforms shaped like knobs,
pipes and buttes, and places where bleached-looking rock forms
white sediment beds or ring-shapes on the surface. Some of the
pipes and other features are tens of yards long or wide.

The geologists determined the processes responsible for these
large-scale features in Utah involved the flow of briny groundwater
saturated with natural gas that bleaches sandstone, and that such
groundwater flow, the precipitation of hard hematite-cemented rock
and the later erosion of surrounding softer rock also would explain
the formation of the erosion-resistant pipes, buttes, knobs and
concretions. They concluded a similar process could have formed
concretions and larger landforms on Mars.

Chan says studying concretions from Utah and Mars “will help us
learn more about the history of Mars. When we have something to
compare it to, it’s a lot easier to figure out.”


[Image 1: (1.5MB)]
University of Utah geologists say marble-shaped rocks known as
concretions from Utah (left) formed millions of years ago in
groundwater-soaked rocks, providing clues to the origin of similar
concretions or so-called “blueberries” (right) discovered on Mars by
NASA’s Opportunity rover. The Utah concretions shown on the left
range in diameter from one twenty-fifth of an inch to 2 inches, while
the Martian versions on the right all measure less than one-fifth of
an inch in diameter. (Scale of photos is different.)

Credit: Left image by Marjorie Chan and Brenda Beitler, University
of Utah. Right image by NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory-Cornell

[Image 2: (1.2MB)]
Marble-like rocks known as hematite concretions litter the surface
of Navajo sandstone at Grand Staircase-Escalante National
Monument in southern Utah.

The rocks accumulated after softer surrounding sandstone eroded
away. They are similar to the so-called “blueberries” found on Mars
by NASA’s Opportunity rover.

Credit: Brenda Beitler, University of Utah.

[Image 3: (889KB)]
Closeup of hematite concretions from Grand Staircase-Escalante
National Monument in southern Utah. University of Utah geologists
say the mostly round rocks formed millions of years ago
underground in porous, water-soaked sandstone, and may provide
clues to similar stones found on Mars by the Opportunity rover.

Credit: Brenda Beitler, University of Utah.

SpaceRef staff editor.