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Credits: LEFT, NASA/JPL/Cornell; RIGHT, NASA/JPL/Cornell/US Geological Survey

May 22, 2006
"Blueberries" Could Redefine Martian Geology

Recent discoveries by the Mars rover “Opportunity” throw new light on terrestrial “concretions”. But the strongest light may come from Dr. C J Ransom’s electrical discharge experiments.

Geologists identify “concretions” as spheroidal masses usually occurring in sedimentary strata. They are often composed of minerals different from the primary constituent of the stratum in which they lie. Many concretions are formed from carbonates, but others of iron ore or silica are not uncommon, and still other varieties occur as well. Formations identified as “spherical concretions” can be as large as 10 feet in diameter. They are often layered like an onion. Inside their spherical shells, some are hollow, others contain crystals, sandstone, or even petroleum.

A few examples of the different varieties can be viewed here. And some impressive links are given here.

One characteristic that virtually all concretions have in common is that they are harder and more durable than their surroundings. The processes by which this is accomplished are far from clear to geologists. But that characteristic enables the concretions to survive while the surrounding materials are eroded away over time, exposing them and leaving them lying on the ground or protruding from cliffs.

Another characteristic is that the concretions are confined to specific areas. Even when the same surrounding layers continue for hundreds of miles, the occurrence of concretions will be limited to a segment of the more extensive formation. The layers in which they are embedded are often level and undistorted around the concretions.

The remarkable sphericity of some concretions has occasionally caused them to be mistaken for human artifacts. No known geologic or chemical process can produce sizable spheres. The kinds of geological processes commonly invoked to explain them have little or no tendency to form spheres. Sphericity is tacked on gratuitously and ad hoc. Some theoretical guesses call upon dissolved minerals to precipitate or crystallize inside spherical cavities (geodes) or around some nucleus (often a fossil). But that fails to address many of the contexts in which concretions arise, and it only sets the question of sphericity back one step: What caused the cavity to be spherical?  What caused spherical layers to form around non-spherical nuclei?

Of course, not all concretions are spherical, and some take very odd shapes. Examples of the famous “Pumpkin Patch” concretions can be seen here.

One cluster of concretions in Southern California (now depleted by rock hounds) had long handles. S.C. Edwards reports, “We soon noticed the specimens were in regular order, all arranged with handles perfectly parallel and horizontal, points north”.

Such clues are vital, but few geologists have reconsidered the larger picture. Before the discovery of the mysterious “blueberries” on Mars it was commonly assumed that concretions were unique to terrestrial geology and that complex processes contributed to the deposition of sedimentary layers over long spans of time. As the space age provided close-up views of other planets, geologists continued to work with the concepts they had synthesized from observation of earth’s present features and processes. By the time the Mars rover Opportunity sent back the stunning images of the blue-grey spherules on Mars, the geologists’ concepts had crystallized into dogma.

Advocates of the Electric Universe contend that the most costly mistake in the theoretical sciences today is the ignoring of electricity. Space-age discoveries have revealed that the universe is composed almost entirely of plasma, and over a century of research into plasma has revealed its electrical properties. The refusal by the institutions of science to consider electrical explanations—even in the face of new discoveries that are predictable electrically— can only create an environment in which prior beliefs harden into dogma, and dogma inspires new waves of pseudoscience.

With the pictures of Martian blueberries before us, the question is no longer “how were the concretions formed?”. We must also ask how the layers surrounding them were formed. The picture on the left above shows the strata containing the Martian spherules imaged by the Rover Opportunity. On the right is a closer view of the fused layers of Martian soil around the spherules—looking very much like the glassy fused material of fulgurites created by lightning strikes. The images suggest possibilities never mentioned in conventional discussion of the blueberries.

Could electrical arcs have created these inclusions and deposited the visible layers of soil around them?  The small spheres stand out, but we also see fused globules of material where a diffuse electrical discharge lacked the intensity to create discrete spheres. Diffuse discharges are not homogeneous but consist of smaller-scale channels that vary in intensity. A regional-sized discharge that sorts and emplaces material in layers would be expected to show areas where more intense arcing formed spherules analogous to those shown in Dr. C J Ransom's laboratory experiments. In this "flash-heating" process certain minerals in the shells will be enhanced or depleted (compared to levels in the surrounding sediments). This process may also help to explain why many concretions have hollow centers, as seen in the cross section of spherules in Dr. Ransom's experiment. Trapped gases may not have time to be released before the molten surface has solidified.

The electrical theorists claim that in the course of regional deposition (primarily electrostatic emplacement) electrical arcs achieved on the surface of Mars exactly what Dr. C J Ransom’s laboratory experiments have exhibited. But will geologists consider Dr Ransom’s experiment in relation to the planet Mars? As a nudge in this direction, in the coming weeks we shall devote a series of submissions to the evidence for global electrical events on Mars, the planet of a thousand mysteries.

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David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
Michael Armstrong
  CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Dwardu Cardona, Ev Cochrane,
C.J. Ransom, Don Scott, Rens van der Sluijs, Ian Tresman
  WEBMASTER: Michael Armstrong

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