Mars was once home to garden and garden and maybe even life. But our neighboring world has long since dried up, and its atmosphere has been blown away, while most activities below the surface have long ceased. It’s a dead planet.
Or is it?
Previous research has suggested volcanic eruptions on Mars 2.5 million years ago. But a new paper suggests that an eruption occurred as late as 53,000 years ago in a region called Cerberus Fossae, which would be the youngest known volcanic eruption on Mars. It drives the prospect that beneath its rusty surface tucked away by giant volcanoes that have become quiet, some volcanism is still erupting to the surface at rare intervals.
The site of the potential eruption, seen in images from Mars orbit, is near a large volcano called Elysium Mons. It is approximately 1,000 miles east of NASA’s stationary InSight lander, which touched Mars in 2018 to study tectonic activity on the red planet. The feature looks like a crack in the surface and resembles a recent eruption of cracks where volcanic activity underground has caused overheated volcanic ash and dust to burst through the surface. It resembles deposits caused by pyroclastic eruptions that scientists have seen on the moon, Mercury and Earth.
The eruption from magma deep below the surface would have reached a height of several miles before falling back to earth. The amount of material is estimated to be 100 times less than the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, said Steven Anderson, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley who was not involved with the newspaper.
It is the presence of darker material here combined with its symmetrical appearance around the crack that suggests an eruption. Known as a sharp error, this type of feature is “very common in Hawaii,” as 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 visible craters around the feature and in the deposit itself, which is approximately six miles across, the team dates the potential eruption from 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 stops controlling, the discovery will have major consequences for Mars. In geological terms, 53,000 years is a blinking eye, suggesting that Mars may still be volcanically active now. It can also have major consequences for the search for life on Mars.
Such volcanic activity could melt ice underground and provide a potentially habitable environment for living things.
“To come alive, you need energy, carbon, water and nutrients,” said Dr. Anderson. “And a volcanic system delivers all of these.”
NASA’s InSight Lander may have already detected activity related to this site. Using a seismometer, it has measured hundreds of “marsquakes” or vibrations in the surface of Mars. But only two of these have been 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, a principal investigator on the InSight mission.
It may be possible for InSight to search for more such activity soon.
“It’s an exciting paper,” said Dr. Smears. “Understanding the current activity on Mars is actually a mystery and key to examining its evolution and habitability.”
However, there are still questions. Lu Pan, a planetary scientist from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, is not so sure about the team’s dating method.
“If you want to date a very new surface, you trust the people in small craters,” said Dr. Pan. “And we have not yet built this large database of small impact craters.”
However, even in a conservative scenario, David Horvath of the University of Arizona, the paper’s lead author, said the eruption would have been only a million years ago. That alone would breathe new life into our understanding of Mars.
“It clearly leaves the possibility that deep down in the surface it may be active today,” he said.