In March, NASA’s InSight lander discovered two large quakes from a geologically active Martian region called Cerberus Fossae. Using images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter orbiting the red planet at an altitude of about 300 km, researchers have now found that the Cerberus Fossae region contains the latest evidence of volcanic activity ever observed on Mars.
The newly observed volcanic deposit could only have formed 46,000 years ago, although external estimates suggest that in the oldest case it could be 200,000 years old. In both cases it is a very young deposit on geological time scales. Most of the volcanic rock elsewhere on Mars is orders of magnitude older and formed 3 to 4 billion years ago during a period of strong geological activity. More recent volcanic eruptions occurred regularly on Mars until about 3 million years ago, but so far we have not seen any evidence of volcanism that can be dated in the thousands of years. This new deposit is unique. Lead researcher David Horvath of the Planetary Science Institute explains, “If we were to compress the geological history of Mars into a single day, it would have happened at the very last second.”
The dark speck that extends either side of this rift in the Cerberus Fossae region marks the most recent volcanic activity ever found on Mars. It is about eight miles wide. Photo credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS / The Murray Lab.
The eruption that created the deposit appears to be explosive in nature, with a pyroclastic cloud that could be up to 6 km high. The dark layer of ash and volcanic material left over from the explosion now covers a 13 km wide region on either side of one of the large fissures after which the Cerberus Fossae is named.
Most of the volcanic rock found on Mars today is the result of lava slowly flowing over the surface. Explosive volcanism like this one appears to be much less common, although its rarity isn’t necessarily due to its rarer occurrence. Instead, explosive volcanism leaves thinner layers of material, making it more easily eroded by wind and other geological activity, or hidden under sand and dust. In other words, the only reason we can even see this new deposit is because it is so young – it has not yet disappeared from the geological record.
When the orbital observations are combined with InSight seismic data, they present the enticing possibility that future eruptions may still occur in the Cerberus Fossae region and that igneous activity just below the surface is ongoing.
A speculative, but not entirely unreasonable, hypothesis suggests that this persistent underground magma flow may have melted ice embedded in the nearby Martian underground, creating habitable environments for microbial life today.
Hydrothermal springs deep beneath the earth’s oceans are primary habitats for chemotropic bacteria: life that relies on inorganic molecules like iron and magnesium, rather than sunlight, to produce energy. The mixture of magma and ice water beneath the Martian surface in the Cerberus Fossae region could provide a similarly viable habitat for this type of microbial life. Photo credit: P. Rona / OAR / National Underwater Research Program (NURP); NOAA.
The researchers believe that “these environments are analogous to places on earth where volcanic activity occurs in glacial environments such as Iceland, where chemotrope [bacteria that gains energy from oxidizing inorganic molecules]cryophilic [cold-loving]and thermophilic [heat-loving] Bacteria thrive. “
We have no way of testing this theory at this time, although InSight will continue to await further seismic activity from its location approximately 1,600 km away. However, in search of microbial alien life, the Cerberus Fossae could be a promising location for future missions.
The researchers published their results in Icarus. Read more about this here:
“Volcanoes on Mars could be active, increasing the possibility of recent habitable conditions.” Planetary Science Institute.
David G. Horvath, Pranabendu Moitra, Christopher W. Hamilton, Robert A. Craddock, Jeffrey C. Andrews-Hanna. “Evidence of the geologically recent explosive volcanism in Elysium Planitia, Mars.” Icarus.