Mars was once home to Seas and oceans and maybe even life. But our neighboring world has long since dried up and its atmosphere has been blown away while most of the activities below its surface have long ceased. It’s a dead planet.
Or is it?
Previous research has pointed to volcanic eruptions on Mars 2.5 million years ago. However, a new paper suggests that an eruption occurred only 53,000 years ago in a region called Cerberus Fossae, which would be the most recent known volcanic eruption on Mars. This raises the prospect that beneath its rusty surface, which is surrounded by huge volcanoes that have fallen silent, some surface volcanism is still erupting at rare intervals.
“If this deposit is of volcanic origin, the Cerberus Fossae region may not have died out and Mars may still be volcanically active today,” write scientists from the University of Arizona and the Smithsonian Institution her paper – which was put online before the peer review and submitted to the journal Icarus.
The location of the possible eruption seen in images from Mars orbit is near a large volcano called Elysium Mons. It is about 1,000 miles east of Stationary InSight lander from NASA, Which Landed on Mars in 2018 study tectonic activity on the red planet. The feature appears like a crack in the surface and looks like a recent crack eruption where underground volcanic activity has caused superheated volcanic ash and dust to burst through the surface. It resembles debris caused by pyroclastic eruptions that scientists discovered on the Moon, Mercury, and Earth.
Starting from magma deep below the surface, the eruption would have reached a height of several miles before falling back to the bottom. The amount of material is estimated at 100 times the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980said Steven Anderson, a geosciences professor at the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley who was not involved in the work.
It’s the presence of darker material here, coupled with its symmetrical appearance around the crevice, that suggests a breakout. Known as a flaw, this type of trait is “very common in Hawaii” because magma near volcanoes causes the surface to expand and crack, says Robert Craddock of the Smithsonian Institution, a co-author of the paper.
By counting the number of craters visible around the feature and in the deposit itself that are approximately six miles in diameter, the team dates the possible eruption 53,000 to 210,000 years ago. This would be by far the youngest known volcanic eruption on Mars.
“I think it’s pretty compelling,” said Dr. Anderson.
If it stands up to the test, the discovery would have a major impact on Mars. Geologically speaking, 53,000 years is a blink of an eye, suggesting that Mars may still be volcanically active now. It could also have a major impact on the search for life on Mars.
Such volcanic activity could melt underground ice and provide a potential habitable environment for living things.
“To have life, you need energy, carbon, water and nutrients,” said Dr. Anderson. “And a volcanic system offers all of that.”
NASA’s InSight lander may have already recorded activity associated with this site. Hundreds of “Mars quakes” or vibrations in the Martian surface were measured with a seismometer. But only two of them were located – and both came from Cerberus Fossae.
“It is certainly plausible that tectonic activity is related to volcanic activity,” said Suzanne Smrekar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, deputy principal investigator on the InSight mission.
InSight may be looking for more such activities soon.
“It’s an exciting paper,” said Dr. Smrekar. “Understanding what is happening on Mars today is indeed a mystery and a key to studying its evolution and habitability.”
However, questions still remain. Lu Pan, a planetary researcher from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, isn’t so sure about the team’s dating method.
“If you want to date a very young surface, rely on the population of small impact craters,” said Dr. Pan. “And we still have to build this big database of small impact craters.”
Even in a conservative scenario, David Horvath of the University of Arizona, the newspaper’s lead author, said the outbreak was only a million years ago. That alone would breathe new life into our understanding of Mars.
“It definitely leaves open the possibility that it could be active deep in the surface today,” he said.