Recent volcanic activity may be critical to hypothetical underground life on Mars.
Astronomers have discovered young rocks that are different from the ancient ones formed by the wind in the region of Elysium Planitia on the Red Planet. Their age ranges from 50 to 200 thousand years, and they may be the youngest volcanic formations found on the planet. This means that Mars may have been volcanically active until recently.
The peak of volcanic activity of Mars falls on the earliest periods of its history – around 3-4 billion years ago. In later eras, volcanic eruptions may have occurred on a smaller scale and only in certain regions of the planet. The most common form of volcanism was effusive eruptions, that is, the outpouring of lava onto the surface.
Such volcanism dominates the geological record of Mars – from volcanic plateaus 3.8-3 billion years old to the younger lava deposits of the Amazonis Planitia and the Elysium Planitia. Whether volcanic activity continues on Mars now is not known for certain.
Is Mars volcanically active?
1. Planetary scientists have analyzed a dark spot of about 200 square meters visible in the images of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of the Elysium Planitia.
2. Sediments near craters and other faults in the plain tend to have a wind-induced texture and form stripes in some predominant direction. However, the rock around this fracture was distributed almost symmetrically compared to similar areas with low albedo.
3. The sediments that formed this structure sit on top of older lava flows and appear atypical for the aeolian topography of the plain. Moreover, the spot looks like dark spots on the Moon and Mercury, which are interpreted as traces of explosive volcanic eruptions.
4. The rocks of this “dark spot” are interpreted as the youngest volcanic material found on Mars. Although pure pyroclastic deposits are known on Earth and documented (presumably) on the Moon and Mercury, no such well-preserved deposits have been recorded on Mars to this day.
5. This area overlaps the previously formed lava flows, and the thickness of the layer of these younger emissions is up to tens of centimeters.
6. For the formation of such a site, the volume of ejected lava had to be from 11 to 28 million cubic meters – these values are comparable to the volumes of emissions of known terrestrial volcanoes.
7. The age of the deposits is estimated from 53 to 210 thousand years. Therefore, it is possible that the deep source of magma that fed this area is still active today.
8. Geologically recent magmatic activity may be critical to hypothetical underground life on Mars. Magmatic melts can melt ice and create hydrothermal circulation, which creates favorable conditions for recent, or even still existing, life in such an environment.
9. It’s important that similar conditions exist on Earth, in places where volcanic activity occurs in glacial environments, such as Iceland. This creates areas where cryophilic organisms and chemotrophs live.
10. NASA’s InSight lander, tasked with the study of tectonic activity on Mars, is operating near the site of the newly-discovered recent volcanic activity. Astronomers theorize that the recent Marsquakes (more than 500 since InSight landed in 2018) could be due to active magma movement below the surface. It could potentially help discover for certain whether Mars is still volcanically active today.
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• Choi, C. (2021, May 11). Mars may still be Volcanically Active, study finds.
• EurekAlert. (n.d.). Volcanoes on Mars could be active.
• Horvath, D., Moitra, P., Hamilton, C., Craddock, R., & Andrews-Hanna, J. (2021, April 21). Evidence for geologically recent explosive volcanism in Elysium Planitia, mars.
• Phys.org. (2021, May 06). Volcanoes on Mars could be active, Raising possibility of Recent habitable conditions.