Mars Express Orbiter Provides Evidence of Ancient Microbial Life, Water, and Volcanism on Red Planet

Astrobiologists have continued to advance their search for microbial life within and outside the solar system. A recent discovery made by scientists seems to be moving us closer to making a new fascinating discovery for humankind. A team of scientists from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory recently studied spacecraft images and data obtained from ground penetrating radar to build 3D reconstructions of lava flowing in Mars’ Elysium Planitia.

After creating this model, the team studied it closely and discovered that lava could have possibly erupted through fissures like one million years ago. The scientists also discovered that the erupted lava could have covered a region on Mars about the size of Alaska. During the research, the researchers discovered more than 40 volcanic events.

Some of these events supersede the others. These most massive events appear to have filled the Martian valley named Athabasca Valles with nearly 1,000 cubic miles (4,168 cubic kilometers) of basalt. The latest discoveries may affect Mars’ ability to sustain microbial life as scientists earlier suggested.

“Elysium Planitia was volcanically much more active than previously thought and might even still be volcanically alive today,” team co-leader and Lunar and Planetary Laboratory scientist Joana Voigt said in a statement. “These areas that used to be considered featureless and boring, like Elysium Planitia, [they are] open books that provide a wealth of information about how they came to be if you know how to read them. I think they contain a lot of secrets, and they want to be read.”

Volcanic Activities on Mars

Mars does not have tectonics just like we have on Earth. Note that Plate tectonics is a section of Earth’s crust that is always shifting and resurfacing. These tectonics often cause volcanic activities at locations where the plates meet or move underneath each other. Scientists have not discovered any active volcanism on Mars.

However, the NASA InSight lander made significant discoveries on Mars including Marsquakes which are still in active operation on Mars. In 2022, a team of University of Arizona scientists discovered evidence of a particular region of increased temperature magma known as a “mantle plume” beneath the Elysium Planitia area on Mars. That discovery shows that the mantle plume must have been driving intense seismic and volcanic activity on Mars recently.

As for this new study, scientists built a 3D model of such activity using the images taken from the Context camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and high-resolution images from the MRO’s HiRISE camera.

The Lunar and Planetary Laboratory team combined these images with data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter on NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor and also with subsurface radar measurements obtained by NASA’s Shallow Radar (SHARAD) probe. The collected data enabled the team to look as deep as 460 feet (140 meters) beneath the shells of the Martian surface. They were able to create a 3D view that reveals the outlook of the region before the eruption of lava from fissures.

“Our study provides the most comprehensive account of geologically recent volcanism on a planet other than Earth,” said Christopher Hamilton, team co-leader and scientist in the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “It is the best estimate of Mars’ young volcanic activity for about the past 120 million years, which corresponds to when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth at their peak to the present.”

What This Discovery Means for Water and Microbial Life on Mars

(Image credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin)

The team revealed that their latest discoveries could have implications on how Mars once sustained microbial life. Since water is the major ingredient of life, scientists believe that it once flowed in excess on Mars. Researchers also believed that Elysium Planitia once had massive floods of liquid water.

There is even proof that lava interacted with the liquid water when it poured into this area. The unique interaction could have possibly created the landscape of Elysium Planitia. The team discovered excess proof of stem explosions that would have taken place where the Martian water met with the lava.

Identifying areas of hydrothermal activity on the red planet could suggest regions that would have possibly sustained microbial life. The team suggests that the volcanic activity may have created potential water on Mars in two different waters. The first way is a catastrophic amount of groundwater could have emerged on the surface of volcanic eruptions. The second method is water contained in lava could have reached into the atmosphere and remained frozen before falling back to the ground as ice.

“When there is a crack in the Martian crust, water can flow onto the surface,” Hamilton said. “Because of the low atmospheric pressure, that water is likely to literally just boil away. But if there’s enough water coming out during that period, you can get a huge flood that comes through, racing over the landscape and carving out these huge features that we see.”

The team published their findings on Dec. 15 in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

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