Volcanoes on Mars could be active – making planet ‘recently habitable’

Volcanic activity on Mars shows that eruptions could have taken place in the past 50,000 years – raising the possibility for habitable conditions below the surface of the Red Planet, according to a new study.

The study, by researchers at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and the Planetary Science Institute, says that most volcanism on the Red Planet occurred between three and four billion years ago, with smaller eruptions in isolated locations continuing perhaps as recently as three million years ago.

Researchers of the paper "Evidence for geologically recent explosive volcanism in Elysium Planitia, Mars," published in the journal Icarus, say that until now, there was no evidence to indicate Mars could still be volcanically active.

Using data from satellites orbiting Mars, researchers discovered a previously unknown volcanic deposit.

"This may be the youngest volcanic deposit yet documented on Mars," said lead study author David Horvath, who did the research as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Arizona and is now a research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute.

"If we were to compress Mars' geologic history into a single day, this would have occurred in the very last second."

The volcanic eruption produced an eight-mile-wide, smooth, dark deposit surrounding a 20-mile-long volcanic fissure.

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"When we first noticed this deposit, we knew it was something special," said study co-author Jeff Andrews-Hanna, an associate professor at the UofArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and 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 – an explosive eruption of magma driven by expanding gasses, not unlike the opening of a shaken can of fizzy drinks.

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.

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 favorable conditions for microbial life fairly recently and raises the possibility of extant life in this region," he said.

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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.

"This may be the most recent volcanic eruption on Mars," Andrews-Hanna 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."

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