Giant Mars Volcano Discovered It’s ‘Hiding’ in Plain Sight

By | March 14, 2024

The Red Planet continues to surprise us. New research has revealed a giant volcano and possibly a layer of buried glacial ice.

The location for this groundbreaking announcement is in the eastern part of the volcanic province of Tharsis on Mars, near the planet’s equator. Due to its eroded and difficult to recognize character, this feature has been missed since Mariner 9 collected images of the site in 1971.

The finding was reported at the 55th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference now underway in The Woodlands, Texas, according to a statement from the SETI Institute. The research was conducted using data from NASA’s Mariner 9, Viking Orbiter 1 and 2, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter missions, as well as the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission.

Related: Life on Mars could have thrived near active volcanoes and an ancient lake deep

Potential destination?

The gigantic volcano had been hiding in plain sight for decades in one of Mars’ most iconic regions, straddling the border between the heavily fractured maze-like Noctis Labyrinthus (Labyrinth of the Night) and the vast canyon system of Valles Marineris (Valleys of Mariner ). ).

The area in which the newly documented volcano lies is home to three other known giant volcanoes: Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons and Arsia Mons.

Although more eroded and less high than these other volcanic counterparts, the newly discovered volcano rivals the others in diameter: about 280 miles (450 kilometers) and a height of about 29,600 feet (9,022 meters).

“Its discovery points to an exciting new place to search for life, and a potential destination for future robotic and human exploration,” the SETI Institute statement said.

an artificially colored image of a planet's surface showing a raised area where a volcano once stood

an artificially colored image of a planet’s surface showing a raised area where a volcano once stood

Long sought after “smoking gun”

Lead author of the study is Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute, based at NASA Ames Research Center.

“We were investigating the geology of an area where we had found the remains of a glacier last year, when we realized we were inside a huge and deeply eroded volcano,” Lee explains.

The volcano’s enormous size and complex history of changes indicate that it has been active for a long time. In addition, in the southeastern part there is a thin, recent volcanic deposit under which glacial ice is probably still present.

“This region of Mars is known to contain a wide variety of hydrated minerals spanning a long period of Martian history,” explains Sourabh Shubham, a graduate student in the University of Maryland’s Department of Geology and co-author of the research.

“It has long been suspected that these minerals had a volcanic environment, so it may not be surprising to find a volcano here,” Shubham added. “In a sense, this great volcano is a long-sought ‘smoking gun’.”

a red-orange landscape dotted with deep gorgesa red-orange landscape dotted with deep gorges

a red-orange landscape dotted with deep gorges

Unknowns and mysteries

However, this new discovery also underlines several mysteries.

First, while it is clear that it has been active for a long time and started building up early in Mars’ history, it is not known exactly how early that is. Although eruptions have occurred even in geologically speaking ‘modern times’, it is not known whether the area is still volcanically active and could erupt again.

Add another unknown. If the area has been active for a long time, would the combination of persistent heat and water from ice have allowed life to exist in the site?

“It’s really a combination of things that makes the Noctis volcano location exceptionally exciting,” Lee feels. “It is an old and long-lived volcano that has been so deeply eroded that you can hike, drive or fly through it to explore, sample and date different parts of its interior to study the evolution of Mars through time.”

a red-orange landscape with deep grooves running through ita red-orange landscape with deep grooves running through it

a red-orange landscape with deep grooves running through it

main location

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Lee concludes that the long history of heat interaction with water and ice “makes it a prime location for astrobiology and our search for signs of life.”

Finally, because glacial ice is likely still preserved at the surface in a relatively warm equatorial region on Mars, “the site looks very attractive for exploration by robots and humans,” Lee said in the SETI statement.

The possible presence of glacial ice at shallow depths near the equator means humans could potentially explore a less frigid part of the planet while still extracting water for hydration and rocket fuel production.

The propellant made on Mars is possible by breaking down the water into hydrogen and oxygen.

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