A team from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona used spacecraft images and data from ground penetrating radar to create 3D reconstructions of lava flows on Mars’ Elysium Planitia. The researchers discovered that lava likely erupted through fissures as recently as one million years ago, covering a region of the Red Planet the size of Alaska.
The team discovered more than 40 volcanic events, the largest of which appears to have filled a Martian valley called the Athabasca Valles with nearly 1,000 cubic miles (4,168 cubic kilometers) of basalt. These findings may have implications for Mars’ ability to harbor life as we know it.
“Elysium Planitia is more volcanically active than previously thought and may still be volcanically active today,” team co-leader and Lunar and Planetary Laboratory scientist Joana Voigt said in a statement. “These places that were once considered featureless and boring, like Elysium Planitia, [they are] open books that provide a wealth of information on how it’s done if you know how to read it.
“I think it has a lot of secrets, and they want to read.”
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Mars is red, not dead
Not the same EARTH, Mars lacks plate tectonics. Plate tectonics refers to sections of our planet’s crust that are constantly shifting and re-emerging, causing volcanic activity to occur at hotspots where plates meet or slide under each other. That means the Red Planet is often classified as a “dead” planet that is geologically inactive. New discoveries of Marshowever, this idea has been challenged.
Although no active volcanism has been observed on the Red Planet, while in motion between 2018 and 2022, the in InSight lander shows that the dry world is regularly shaken by “marsquakes,” suggesting that its interior must be far from inactive.
Last year, another group of scientists at the University of Arizona presented evidence that an area of rising-temperature magma called a “mantle plume” beneath the Elysium Planitia area is driving strong seismic and volcanic activity in recent past.
To conduct this new study and build a 3D model of the event, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory team took images from the Context camera aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and high-resolution images from MRO’s HiRISE camera, combining it with data from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor’s Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter and with subsurface radar measurements collected by NASA’s Shallow Radar (SHARAD) probe.
This allowed them to see as deep as 460 feet (140 meters) below the Red Planet’s shell, creating a 3D view that shows what the region was like before the lava erupted from the 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 at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, . “This is the best estimate of young volcanic activity on Mars in the last 120 million years, which corresponds to when dinosaurs roamed the Earth at their peak until now.”
Implications for water and life on Mars
The team’s findings have implications for finding out whether Mars may harbor microbial life. Water is an essential component of life as we know it, and scientists know that in contrast to the barren and dry Red Planet we see today, the Martian surface once flowed with large amounts of liquid water.
Elysium Planitia is believed to be a region that once experienced great floods of liquid water, and there is evidence that when lava was poured into this region, it came into contact with liquid water – or, at the very least, water that ice. This interaction may have dramatically sculpted the landscape of Elysium Planitia.
The Lunar and Planetary Laboratory team found abundant evidence of steam explosions occurring where potential water meets lava. This type of interaction gives rise to hydrothermal environments — regions where water is heated by geological activity. Examples of this on Earth include seabed fissures called hydrothermal vents, which can sustain many forms of life.
Therefore, finding regions of hydrothermal activity on Mars will also help determine regions that would have been conducive to microbial life.
Volcanic activity seen in the Elysium Planitia region group could also have brought potentially life-sustaining water to the surface of Mars in two ways. First, a catastrophic amount of groundwater can be released by volcanic eruptions, and second, the water contained in the lava can be thrown into the atmosphere, where it freezes and then falls back to earth as ice.
“If there is a crack in the Martian crust, water can flow to the surface,” Hamilton said. “Because of the low atmospheric pressure, that water would probably literally boil. We’ll see.”
In addition, understanding how water flows on the surface of Mars may also be important when considering crewed missions to the Red Planet.
Equatorial regions like that of Elysium Planitia are easier to land on than regions at higher latitudes. Knowing that water can be found in these areas, even if it is underground, will help future astronauts obtain water for consumption or for fuel production during missions.
The team will continue to study this region, taking advantage of swathes of data collected using different imaging techniques and creating additional 3D insights into the Martian surface and regions below. It will also help scientists create a timeline of events for other volcanically active regions of Mars.
“Elysium Planitia is the perfect location to try to understand the link between what we see on the surface and the interior dynamics that manifest themselves through volcanic eruptions,” Voigt said. “I paid a lot of attention to the details of the lava surfaces to try and remove the different eruption events and reconstruct the entire history of these geologic entities.”
The team’s research was published on December 15 at Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.
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