Mars was once home to the seas and oceans, and perhaps even life. But our neighboring world has long since dried up and its atmosphere has been blown away, while most of the activities beneath its surface have long since ceased. This is a dead planet.
Or is it?
Previous research has hinted at volcanic eruptions on Mars 2.5 million years ago. A new new document suggests that the eruption occurred 53,000 years ago in a region called Cerberus Fossae, which would be the youngest known volcanic eruption on Mars. This brings home the prospect that beneath its rusty surface, dotted with giant muffled volcanoes, some volcanism still erupts at rare intervals.
The site of the potential eruption, seen in images from Martian orbit, is near a large volcano called Elysium Mons. It is located about 1,000 miles east of NASA’s InSight stationary lander, which touched Mars in 2018 to study the tectonic activity of the red planet. Appearing as a crack on the surface, the feature looks like a recent eruption of cracks, where the underground volcanic activity has caused overheating of volcanic ash and dust through the surface. It is similar to the deposits caused by pyroclastic eruptions that scientists have observed on the Moon, Mercury and Earth.
Originating from magma deep below the surface, the eruption would reach a height of several miles before falling back to earth. The amount of material is estimated at 100 times less than the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, said Stephen Anderson, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Northern Colorado at Grill, who was not involved in the article.
The presence of darker material here, along with its symmetrical appearance around the crack, hints at an eruption. Known as damage, this type of feature is “very common in Hawaii” because the magma near volcanoes causes the surface to expand and crack, says Robert Craddock of the Smithsonian Institution, co-author of the article.
By counting the number of craters visible around the site and at the site itself, which is approximately six miles wide, the team dates the potential eruption from 53,000 to 210,000 years ago. This would definitely be the youngest known volcanic eruption on Mars.
“I think it’s pretty convincing,” Dr. Anderson said.
If the inspection is maintained, the discovery will have major consequences for Mars. Geologically, 53,000 years is a blink of an eye, suggesting that Mars may still be volcanically active now. This can also have major implications for the search for life on Mars.
Such volcanic activity can melt underground ice, providing a potential habitat for living things.
“To have life, you need energy, carbon, water and nutrients,” said Dr. Anderson. “And a volcanic system provides all that.”
NASA’s InSight may have already registered activity related to this site. Using a seismometer, he measured hundreds of “marshaks” or vibrations on the surface of Mars. But only two of them are localized – both come from Cerberus Fossae.
“It’s definitely plausible that tectonic activity is linked to volcanic activity,” said Susanna Smrekar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who is deputy principal investigator for the InSight mission.
InSight may soon look for more such activities.
“This is an exciting book,” said Dr. Smrekar. “Understanding today’s activity on Mars is indeed a mystery and the key to exploring its evolution and habitability.”
However, questions still remain. Lu Pan, a planetary scientist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, is less sure about the team’s dating method.
“If you want to date a very recent surface, you’re counting on a population of small impact craters,” Dr. Pan said. “And we still haven’t built this large database of low-impact craters.”
But even in a conservative scenario, David Horvath of the University of Arizona, the newspaper’s lead author, said the eruption should have been only a million years ago. Only this would breathe new life into our understanding of Mars.
“It definitely leaves open the possibility, deep in the surface, to be active today,” he said.