The Mars Express orbiter suggests evidence of ancient microbial life, water and volcanism on the Red Planet

By | December 21, 2023

    A red planet, Mars, can be seen on the left.  a white box surrounds an image of the surface of Mars, with an arrow from the box to the planet.  another box, with an arrow pointing to the first box, shows a closer view of the surface of Mars.

A red planet, Mars, can be seen on the left. a white box surrounds an image of the surface of Mars, with an arrow from the box to the planet. another box, with an arrow pointing to the first box, shows a closer view of the surface of Mars.

A team from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory has used spacecraft images and ground-penetrating radar data to create 3D reconstructions of lava flows in Mars’ Elysium Planitia. The researchers found that lava probably erupted through fissures as recently as a million years ago, covering an area on the Red Planet about the size of Alaska.

The team has discovered more than 40 volcanic events, the most massive of which appears to have filled a Martian valley called Athabasca Valles with nearly 1,000 cubic miles (4,168 cubic kilometers) of basalt. These findings could have implications for Mars’ ability to host life as we know it.

“Elysium Planitia was much more volcanically active than previously thought and could still be volcanically alive even today,” said team co-leader and lunar and planetary laboratory scientist Joana Voigt. said in a statement. “These areas that were previously considered featureless and boring, such as Elysium Planitia, [they are] open books that offer a wealth of information about how they came to be, if you know how to read them.

“I think they contain a lot of secrets and they want to be read.”

Related: Mars’ atmosphere swelled like a balloon when the solar wind stopped blowing. Scientists are enthusiastic

Mars is red, not dead

unlike SoilMars lacks plate tectonics. Plate tectonics refers to the parts of the Earth’s crust that continually shift and resurface, creating volcanic activity at hotspots where plates meet or slide under each other. That means the Red Planet is often classified as a ‘dead’ planet that is geologically inactive. Recent discoveries on Marshowever, have disputed this idea.

Although no active volcanism has been observed on the Red Planet while it was active between 2018 and 2022, NASA InSight lander showed that the arid world is often rocked by ‘Marsquakes’, suggesting that the interior must be far from inactive.

Just last year, another team of scientists from the University of Arizona showed evidence that an area of ​​elevated-temperature magma, called a “mantle plume,” beneath the Elysium Planitia area has been generating intense seismic and volcanic activity recently.

a high view of the surface of Mars with a black sky and an orange-red horizona high view of the surface of Mars with a black sky and an orange-red horizon

a high view of the surface of Mars with a black sky and an orange-red horizon

To conduct this new research and build a 3D model of such activities, the team at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory captured images with the Context camera aboard NASA’s Mars exploration sorber (MRO) and high-resolution images from the MRO’s HiRISE camera, combining these with data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter on NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor and with subsurface radar measurements collected by NASA’s Shallow Radar (SHARAD) probe.

This allowed them to see as deep as 450 feet beneath the Red Planet’s shell, creating a 3D view showing what the region looked like before the eruption of lava from fissures.

“Our study provides the most comprehensive record of geologically recent volcanism on a planet other than Earth,” said Christopher Hamilton, team leader and scientist in the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “It is the best estimate of young volcanic activity on Mars over the past 120 million years, which corresponds to when dinosaurs roamed the Earth at their peak until now.”

Implications for water and life on Mars

The team’s findings have implications for the quest to discover whether Mars could once have harbored microbial life. Water is a key ingredient for life as we know it, and scientists know that, unlike the barren and barren Red Planet we see today, the surface of Mars was once awash with abundant liquid water.

Elysium Planitia is believed to be a region that once experienced major floods of liquid water, and there is evidence that when lava flowed in this region, it interacted with that liquid water – or at least with water ice. This interaction is said to have dramatically shaped the landscape of Elysium Planitia.

The team at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory found abundant evidence of steam explosions that would have occurred where the potential water met lava. This type of interaction can give rise to hydrothermal environments: areas where water is heated by geological activity. Examples of this here on Earth include cracks in the seabed called hydrothermal vents, which are capable of supporting a wide range of life forms.

Thus, locating regions of hydrothermal activity on Mars could also help pinpoint regions that would have been conducive to microbial life.

Young faults in the Cerberus Fossae region of Mars' vast Elysium Planitia plain indicate recent volcanismYoung faults in the Cerberus Fossae region of Mars' vast Elysium Planitia plain indicate recent volcanism

Young faults in the Cerberus Fossae region of Mars’ vast Elysium Planitia plain indicate recent volcanism

The volcanic activity the team observed in the Elysium Planitia region may also have brought potentially life-sustaining water to the surface of Mars in two ways. First, volcanic eruptions could release a catastrophic amount of groundwater, and second, water from lava could be thrown into the atmosphere, where it froze and eventually fell back to the ground as ice.

“If there is a crack in the crust of Mars, water can flow to the surface,” Hamilton said. “Because of the low atmospheric pressure, that water will probably literally boil away. But if enough water comes out during that period, you could have a massive flood that sweeps across the landscape and carves out huge features that we see.”

Furthermore, understanding how water once flowed on the surface of Mars could also be important when considering human missions to the Red Planet.

Equatorial areas such as that of the Elysium Planitia are much easier to land on than areas at higher latitudes. Knowing that water can be found in these areas, even if it is below the surface, could help future astronauts find water for consumption or to generate fuel during missions.

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The team will continue to study this region, using large amounts of data collected using various imaging methods and creating more 3D insights into the surface of Mars and the areas beneath it. This will also help scientists construct a time series of events for other volcanically active areas on Mars.

“Elysium Planitia is the perfect location to try to understand the connection between what we see on the surface and the internal dynamics manifested by volcanic eruptions,” Voigt said. “I paid a lot of attention to the details on the lava surfaces to try to disentangle the different eruption events and reconstruct the entire history of these geological entities.”

The team’s research was published on December 15 in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

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