Astrobiologists searching for the ultimate prize on Mars–extraterrestrial life–should send a robot scout straight to the mighty Martian volcano Olympus Mons, geologists say in a new study. New research shows that liquid water probably once sloshed beneath the 15-mile-high volcano. It may still be there, and it may be nice and warm, thanks to volcanic heat. “Olympus Mons is a favored place to find ongoing life on Mars,” said the study’s lead author, geophysicist Patrick McGovern…. “An environment that’s warm and wet, and protected from adverse surface conditions, is a great place to start looking” [Wired].
Rising three times higher than Mount Everest, Olympus Mons was active at least 40 million years ago, and perhaps more recently [ABC Science]. For the new study published in Geology, researchers used computer modeling to investigate how the volcano formed, looking particularly at its asymmetrical slopes. They concluded that the Martian volcano has one steep side and one long, gradual slope because of variations in the underlying sediment. The gradual slope probably formed because it slid on something slippery like water-rich clay, they say, and pockets of water could still be trapped deep beneath the surface.
Olympus Mons is known to have erupted relatively recently, as its slopes aren’t marked with many impact craters; it may have been active until 20 to 10 million years ago, researchers say, and its interior could still be warm. McGovern says these factors make it an enticing destination. “It’s the natural place I’d go first on an astrobiological expedition to Mars, given that it’s the place where volcanism is strongest and youngest on the planet,” says McGovern. “And you want to be looking wherever it’s hot” [ABC Science]. The environment inside the volcano could give rise to lifeforms like those extremophiles found around geothermal vents in the Earth’s ocean floor, where organisms developed despite the dark and the heat.
Researchers acknowledge that they’re only speculating about the potential for liquid water, heat, and life on the Red Planet, but say that a rover could produce more definitive results by measuring sub-surface temperatures near the volcano, and by looking for other evidence. “What we need is ‘ground truth’ — something reporting from the surface saying, ‘Hey, there’s a Marsquake,’ or ‘Hey, there’s unusual emissions of gas,’” McGovern added. “Ultimately, we’d like to see a series of seismic stations so we can see what’s moving around the planet” [SPACE.com].
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