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There's iron in them thar Martian hills
Future Martian explorers should find it easier to locate minerals deposits on Mars thanks to a team of Australian researchers.

The study, which appears in the journal Planetary and Space Science, could also help in the search for life on the red planet.

Michael West of the Australian National University and Dr Jonathan Clarke of University of New South Wales say while there is mineral wealth on Mars, it won't be easy to access.

"The bulk of the elements you would require if you want to have long term settlements could be found on Mars," says West. "[But] it's unlikely in the near term that we're going to see large-scale mining operations on the surface of Mars"

According to West, the most plentiful mineral on Mars is iron, reflected by the colour of the planet's 'rusted' red surface.

He says, several years ago NASA's Opportunity rover discovered ball-bearing shaped deposits of haematite congregations - nicknamed 'blueberries'- which are rich in iron.

"The beauty of those is that you can extract them with a vacuum cleaner."
Hydrothermal vents

West, who is also a member of the Mars Institute, suggests future Martian miners looking for fame and fortune head towards the planet's large craters and canyons.

"You want to go to places where you can see bedrock. If you go to an impact crater, it has done some of the excavation," he says.

Other geological formations worthy of exploration include hydrothermal vents, which may exist on the Martian surface.

"The fluids [in the vents] generally act as a conduit to move minerals and concentrate them around where this activity occurs," says West.

"It's possible that there's copper, zinc, lead. Wherever on Earth there is hydrothermal activity you tend to find those minerals."

The study also highlights the massive volcanic region of Tharsis Montes and Olympus Mons - the tallest volcano in the Solar System - as being similar to 'large igneous provinces' found in South Africa and Siberia, which contain large amounts of nickel, copper, titanium and chromium - and sedimentary ironstones.
Missing elements

According to West, the lack of large reservoirs of water on Mars rules out a number of minerals currently found on Earth, such as bauxite - used to make aluminium.

He says elements such as thorium - a future source of nuclear energy - and vanadium - used to strengthen steel - require organic or biological processes to help them form.

"It's fair to say that the kinds of processes that require organic activity are unlikely to occur on Mars."

But West admits there is still a lot to learn about the mineral wealth of Mars.

"It's a planet with the same surface area as Earth, but we've only been to about 10 places," he says. "There's still a lot to explore."
Search for life

Head of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at the University of New South Wales, Professor Malcolm Walter, co-authors a study with West and Clarke that also appears in the same issue. The second study compares geological features in outback Australia with those found on Mars.

He says knowing where certain minerals exist on the red planet will assist in the search for possible microbial life there.

"Certain minerals are very good at preserving microbes or indicative of certain sorts of environments where microbes are still living or have done so in the past."

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