Potassium isotope composition of Mars reveals a mechanism of planetary volatile retention

Zhen Tian, Tomáš Magna, James M. D. Day, Klaus Mezger, Erik E. Scherer, Katharina Lodders, Remco C. Hin, Piers Koefoed, Hannah Bloom, and Kun Wang

PNAS, September 28, 2021 118 (39)


“The abundances of water and highly to moderately volatile elements in planets are considered critical to mantle convection, surface evolution processes, and habitability. From the first flyby space probes to the more recent “Perseverance” and “Tianwen-1” missions, “follow the water,” and, more broadly, “volatiles,” has been one of the key themes of martian exploration. Ratios of volatiles relative to refractory elements (e.g., K/Th, Rb/Sr) are consistent with a higher volatile content for Mars than for Earth, despite the contrasting present-day surface conditions of those bodies. This study presents K isotope data from a spectrum of martian lithologies as an isotopic tracer for comparing the inventories of highly and moderately volatile elements and compounds of planetary bodies. Here, we show that meteorites from Mars have systematically heavier K isotopic compositions than the bulk silicate Earth, implying a greater loss of K from Mars than from Earth. The average “bulk silicate” δ41K values of Earth, Moon, Mars, and the asteroid 4-Vesta correlate with surface gravity, the Mn/Na “volatility” ratio, and most notably, bulk planet H2O abundance. These relationships indicate that planetary volatile abundances result from variable volatile loss during accretionary growth in which larger mass bodies preferentially retain volatile elements over lower mass objects. There is likely a threshold on the size requirements of rocky (exo)planets to retain enough H2O to enable habitability and plate tectonics, with mass exceeding that of Mars.”