Volcanoes on Mars could be geologically ACTIVE, study finds

Volcanoes on Mars could be geologically ACTIVE – raising the possibility microbes lived on the Red Planet as recently as 30,000 years ago, study reveals

  • Scientists reviewed images of the Elysium Planitia region of the Red Planet 
  • Within the images they spotted evidence of geologically recent volcanic activity
  • The team say this may be the youngest volcanic deposit documented on Mars
  • Previously found volcanic activity ranged from billions to millions of years old 
  • They say this evidence ‘absolutely raises the possibility that there could still be volcanic activity on Mars’ and the chance the subsurface is habitable 

Volcanos on Mars could still be active, researchers claim, saying that it could mean life on the Red Planet was active within the past 30,000 years.

University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and the Planetary Science Institute discovered unknown volcanic deposits in satellite images of the planet.

The team said these images showed evidence of eruptions in the past 50,000 years, in the Elysium Planitia region, about 1,000 miles from the NASA InSight lander.

Most volcanism on the Red Planet occurred between three and four billion years ago, with smaller eruptions in isolated locations continuing up to three million years ago.

They say this evidence ‘absolutely raises the possibility that there could still be volcanic activity on Mars’ and of habitable conditions under the Martian surface.  

‘This may be the youngest volcanic deposit yet documented on Mars,’ said lead study author David Horvath, adding that ‘if we were to compress Mars’ geologic history into a single day, this would have occurred in the very last second.’ 

Craters on Mars where deposits have been discovered that suggest very recent volcanic activity, within the past 50,000 years

The team said these images showed evidence of eruptions in the past 50,000 years, in the Elysium Planitia region, about 1,000 miles from the NASA InSight lander


Elysium planitia is the location of the volcanic activity

The Elysium planitia on Mars is a broad plain straddling the equator of the Red Planet, lying south of the volcanic Elysium province. 

Lava flows dating back hundreds of thousands, not millions, of years have been found in the region. 

There is also evidence of volcanic activity as recently as 50,000 years ago and long-gone ocean hundreds of miles wide. 

It is hte landing site of NASA’s InSight lander, sent to Mars to look for evidence of Marsquakes.

Many of which have been found within the region. 

The ‘recent’ volcanic eruption the team have evidence for produced an 8-mile-wide, smooth, dark deposit surrounding a 20-mile-long volcanic fissure.

‘When we first noticed this deposit, we knew it was something special,’ said study co-author Jeff Andrews-Hanna, the senior author on the study. 

‘The deposit was unlike anything else found in the region, or indeed on all of Mars, and more closely resembled features created by older volcanic eruptions on the Moon and Mercury.’

Further investigation showed that the properties, composition and distribution of material match what would be expected for a pyroclastic eruption.

That is an explosive eruption of magma driven by expanding gasses, not unlike the opening of a shaken can of soda.

The majority of volcanism in the Elysium Planitia region and elsewhere on Mars consists of lava flowing across the surface, similar to recent eruptions in Iceland being studied by co-author Christopher Hamilton. 

Although there are numerous examples of explosive volcanism on Mars, they occurred long ago. However, this deposit appears to be different.

‘This feature overlies the surrounding lava flows and appears to be a relatively fresh and thin deposit of ash and rock, representing a different style of eruption than previously identified pyroclastic features,’ Horvath said. 

Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) daytime infrared of the unit showing the symmetric nature of the deposit

High Resolution Imaging Experiment (HiRISE) image showing that the appearance of the Cerberus Fossae mantling unit differs from that of the surrounding volcanic plains

‘This eruption could have spewed ash as high as 6 miles into Mars’ atmosphere. It is possible that these sorts of deposits were more common but have been eroded.’

The site of the recent eruption is about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from NASA’s InSight lander, which has been studying seismic activity on Mars since 2018. 

Two Marsquakes, the Martian equivalent of earthquakes, were found to originate in the region around the Cerberus Fossae, and recent work has suggested the possibility that these could be due to the movement of magma deep underground.

‘The young age of this deposit absolutely raises the possibility that there could still be volcanic activity on Mars, and it is intriguing that recent Marsquakes detected by the InSight mission are sourced from the Cerberus Fossae,’ Horvath said. 

Images showing gaps, deposits and craters within the Martian surface where it is thought volcanic activity took place within the past 50,000 years

In fact, the team of researchers predicted this to be a likely location for Marsquakes several months before NASA’s InSight lander touched down on Mars.

A volcanic deposit such as this one also raises the possibility for habitable conditions below the surface of Mars in recent history, Horvath said.

‘The interaction of ascending magma and the icy substrate of this region could have provided favourable conditions for microbial life fairly recently and raises the possibility of extant life in this region,’ he said. 

Similar volcanic fissures in this region were the source of enormous floods, perhaps as recently as 20 million years ago, as groundwater erupted out onto the surface. 

Elysium Mons is one of the largest volcanos on Mars and researchers believe the Elysium Planitia was home to relatively recent volcanic activity

Scientists claim to have found evidence of FUNGI on Mars 

A scientist dubbed the ‘Space Tiger King’ has claimed that strange ‘puffball-like’ rocks on Mars are actually mushrooms. 

Microbiologist Dr Xinli Wei from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, astrophysicist Dr Rudolph Schild from Harvard-Smithsonian and Dr. Rhawn Gabriel Joseph, aka Space Tiger King, made the claims after studying images snapped by NASA’s Curiosity rover on the Red Planet and the orbiting HiRISE craft.

Their study, was has met been with skepticism from the scientific community, argues that what NASA called rocks are actually fungus-like specimens growing in the Martian landscape.

The trio claim that these ‘mushrooms’ seem to shrink, appear and disappear over a period of days, weeks and months. In one example, the team says there is evidence of fungi resembling Puffballs on Earth ‘re-sprouting’ in tracks left behind by the NASA Curiosity rover.

Pranabendu Moitra, a research scientist in the University of Arizona Department of Geosciences, has been probing the mechanism behind the eruption.

An expert in similar explosive eruptions on Earth, Moitra developed models to look at the possible cause of the Martian eruption. 

He suggests that the explosion either could have been a result of gases already present in the Martian magma, or it could have happened when the magma came into contact with Martian permafrost.

‘The ice melts to water, mixes with the magma and vaporizes, forcing a violent explosion of the mixture,’ Moitra said. 

‘When water mixes with magma, it’s like pouring gasoline on a fire.’

He also points out that the youngest volcanic eruption on Mars happened only 6 miles from the youngest large-impact crater on the planet – a 6-mile-wide crater named Zunil.

‘The ages of the eruption and the impact are indistinguishable, which raises the possibility, however speculative, that the impact actually triggered the volcanic eruption,’ Moitra said.

Several studies have found evidence that large quakes on Earth can cause magma stored beneath the surface to erupt. The impact that formed the Zunil crater on Mars would have shaken the Red Planet just like an earthquake, Moitra explained.

While the more dramatic giant volcanoes elsewhere on Mars – such as Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system – tell a story of the planet’s ancient dynamics, the current hotspot of Martian activity seems to be in the relatively featureless plains of the planet’s Elysium region.

Maps and diagrams showing where the expulsions happened as a result of relatively recent geological activity on Mars

Andrews-Hanna said it’s remarkable that one region hosts the epicentres of present-day earthquakes, the most recent floods of water, the most recent lava flows, and now an even more recent explosive volcanic eruption.

‘This may be the most recent volcanic eruption on Mars,’ he said, ‘but I think we can rest assured that it won’t be the last.’

The volcanic deposit described in this study, along with ongoing seismic rumbling in the planet’s interior detected by InSight and possible evidence for releases of methane plumes into the atmosphere detected by NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, suggest that Mars is far from a cold, inactive world, Andrews-Hanna said.

‘All these data seem to be telling the same story,’ he said. ‘Mars isn’t dead.’

The findings have been published in the journal Icarus. 

Scientists believe Mars holds large volumes of water but much of it is stored in ice or in brine patches

How important is the presence of liquid water?

It is now widely believed that Mars holds a reasonably large volume of water.

However, the surface of the planet is so cold, this water exists only as ice.

In order for life to exist on a planet, many scientists believe it is essential for the world to possess liquid water.

Ever since technology has enabled mankind to gaze at Mars in detail, humans have been looking for indications that there was water on the red planet.

Did water used to flow on the surface of Mars? 

The Mariner 9 mission revealed clues of water erosion in river beds and canyons, as well as evidence of weather fronts and fogs on Mars in 1971.

Later missions from the Viking orbiters, which first launched in 1975, revealed yet more details about how water flowed on the surface and carved valleys.

Several studies investigated the presence of liquid water for decades. In 2000, the first proof of liquid water on Mars was discovered.

It was claimed the gullies seen on the surface of the planet had to have been formed by flowing water.

Scientists cited the debris and mud deposits left behind as evidence for moving water existing at some point in the history of the red planet.

However, the formation of these gullies has been hotly debated throughout the ensuing years.

Proof of ice in geological samples from Mars

Spirit and Opportunity, the twin rovers, found evidence of the presence of water enclosed in rock in 2007, when one of Spirit’s wheels broke and gorged a piece of stone.

Analysis of the silica-rich layer discovered in the scratch suggested it formed in the presence of liquid water.

In 2008, the Phoenix lander was gathering geological samples, and they disappeared after a few days.

Scientists thought these were pieces of ice. This assessment was confirmed when the lander later detected water vapour in a sample. 

In 2012, Curiosity was meandering over an ancient martian seabed when it examined a number of rocks that were exposed to liquid water billions of years ago.

In 2012, Curiosity (pictured) was meandering over an ancient martian seabed when it examined a number of rocks that were exposed to liquid water billions of years ago

Recurring slope lineae and debate causes it

Features known as recurring slope lineae (RSL) were first identified in 2011.

These dark streaks populate the areas of Mars with a sharp incline.

Researchers speculated that these may have been caused by the intermittent flow of liquid water down steep banks on the planet.

In June 2013, Curiosity found powerful evidence that water good enough to drink once flowed on Mars. In September of the same year, the first scoop of soil analysed by Curiosity revealed that fine materials on the surface of the planet contain two per cent water by weight. 

In 2015, Nasa claimed to have discovered the first evidence of liquid water on Mars in the present day.

The space agency said that its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provided the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars. 

In 2017, Nasa issued another statement rebuking its initial findings.

Features known as recurring slope lineae (RSL) were first identified in 2011 (pictured). These dark streaks populate the areas of Mars with a sharp incline. Researchers speculated that these may have been caused by the intermittent flow of liquid water

It said the dark features that run down steep inclines on the red planet were actually granular flows, where grains of sand and dust slip downhill to make dark streaks, rather than the ground being darkened by seeping water.

Images from the MRO revealed the streaks only exist on slopes steep enough for dry grains to descend the way they do on faces of active dunes.

Also in 2017, scientists provided the best estimates for water on Mars, claiming it once had more liquid H2O than the Arctic Ocean – and the planet kept these oceans for more than 1.5 billion years.

The findings suggest there was ample time and water for life on Mars to thrive, but over the last 3.7 billion years the red planet has lost 87 per cent of its water – leaving the surface barren and dry. 

A subterranean lake

In a study published in the journal Science, ESO researchers have now discovered the first concrete evidence for liquid water on Mars.

Using radar imagery from the Mars Express probe, the ESO team have found a 12-mile long underground lake filled with liquid water.    

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