Hydrous clay minerals detected on the surface of Mars have been interpreted as indicators of the hydrologic and climatic evolution of the planet. The iron- and magnesium-rich clays described in thick, extensive outcrops of Noachian crust have been proposed to originate from aqueous weathering. This would imply that liquid water was stable at the surface of early Mars, presumably when the climate was warmer and wetter. Here we show that iron- and magnesium-rich clays can alternatively form by direct precipitation from residual, water-rich magma-derived fluids. Infrared reflectance spectra from terrestrial lavas from the Mururoa Atoll (French Polynesia) that underwent this precipitation process are similar to those measured for the Noachian crust. Such an origin is also consistent with the D/H ratio of iron- and magnesium-rich clays in some martian meteorites and the widespread presence of these clays in massive basaltic lavas, breccias and regolith. We propose that the progressive degassing of the martian interior over time and the resultant increasingly water-poor magmatic fluids—and not a cooling climate—may explain the absence of clays in Hesperian-aged and more recent formations.
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