Habitable Mars? Active volcanoes indicate that there is ‘little’ time, yes

A study recently published in the scientific journal Icarus indicates that the red planet may have recently been habitable in terms of the universe: only 50,000 years ago. The conclusion comes after the study of images of volcanic activity in the region called Plain Elysium. The discovery draws attention because most of the volcanism on Mars occurred between 3 and 4 billion years ago.

Satellite image of what could be a lava deposit around a fissure on Mars. Source: NASA / JPL / MSSS / The Murray Lab

The eruptions already known on the red planet occurred in isolated places and indicate that it continued until three million years ago. Evidence of recent volcanic activity on Mars brings the possibility of life on the planet for dates far more recent than previously thought, in addition to indicating that Mars may still be volcanically active.

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The research team used data from satellites orbiting Mars. David Horvath, a researcher at the Lunar Laboratory and Planetarium at the University of Arizona at the time of the study and lead author of the play, told the site Phys details of the study, such as the size of the mysterious dark deposit found: it covers an area slightly larger than Washington, DC – the capital of the United States.

“It has a high thermal inertia, includes material rich in pyroxene with a high calcium content and is symmetrically distributed around a segment of the Cerberus Fossae fissure system in the Elysium Plain, an atypical location for the deposit of particles that may have been moved by wind, “he said. “The feature is similar to the dark spots on the moon and on Mercury, which can also be explosive volcanic eruptions,” said Horvath.

Elysium Plain, the region of recent explosive volcanism (white box) and the position of NASA's InSight probe.Elysium Plain, the region of recent explosive volcanism (white box) and the position of NASA’s InSight probe.Source: MOLA Science Team

The researcher believes that this is the youngest volcanic deposit ever documented on Mars. “If we had to compress the geological history of Mars in a single day, it would have happened in the last second,” he said.

Volcanic activity on Mars

Most volcanism in the Elysium Plain region and elsewhere on Mars consists of lava flowing on the surface, although there are several examples of explosive volcanism on the planet. But that deposit seems to be different. “It appears to be a relatively new deposit of ash and rocks, representing a different eruption style and period than the previously identified pyroclastic features,” said Horvath.

According to the study, the eruption may have launched ash at a height of ten kilometers in the Martian atmosphere, but it probably represents a last breath: the Elysium Plain hosts some of the youngest volcanoes on Mars, dating from about 3 million years ago. “It is possible that these types of deposits were more common, but they have been eroded or buried,” says the researcher.

NASA's InSight probe has been on Martian soil since 2018.NASA’s InSight probe has been on Martian soil since 2018.Source: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The site of the most recent eruption is about 1,600 km from NASA’s InSight probe, which has been studying tectonic activity on the planet since 2018. Two seismic shocks – called earthquakes – have been located in the region around Cerberus Fossae and recent work has suggested the possibility that this may occur due to the movement of magma in depth.

So Mars has active volcanoes?

“The young age of this deposit raises the possibility that there may still be volcanic activity on Mars and it is intriguing that the recent tidal waves detected by the InSight mission originate from the Cerberus Fossae,” said Horvath. And he amended: “However, sustaining magma close to the surface so late in Mars’ history without any associated lava flows would be difficult and therefore a deeper magmatic source would probably be needed to create this eruption.”

Life on Mars

Such a volcanic deposit would increase the possibility of habitable conditions close to the surface of Mars in recent history. “The interaction of the ascending magma and the icy substrate of this region may have recently provided favorable conditions for microbial life and increases the possibility of life in this region,” concluded Horvath.

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