Where Would Martian Life Hang Out? Under a Giant Volcano, Naturally

By Eliza Strickland | March 5, 2009 11:00 am

olympus monsAstrobiologists 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].

Related Content:
80beats: “Life on Mars” Theories Get a Boost From Methane Plumes
80beats: Long-Sought Mineral Boosts Possibility That Mars Once Hosted Life
DISCOVER: Life From Mars examines claims of fossilized bacteria in meteorites from Mars
DISCOVER: Life on Mars checks out the possibility that microbes once inhabited the planet

Image: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/ Uncle Al

    If Olympus Mons is internally warm, look at its surface in the infrared or microwave, at night in winter. If Mars’ methane is biogenic not primordial there will be a carbon isotope shift. Deep water will show substantial deuterium depletion compared to atmospheric vapor subject to aeons of photolysis and light hydrogen escape. All this capability has already visited. Why didn’t somebody look?

    “Science” is doing everything possible not to answer the question. That would be the subset called “politics”. Sending a $750 million laboratory to Mars that could not load its sample bins – or draw any conclusions when it did – was process not product. The Space Scuttle is process not product (25 ton safety-downrated payload but a 120 ton parasitic vehicle). ISS FUBAR is process not product. Buncha political crap.

    The only ISS FUBAR experiment worth a farthing would have been first thing to boost a colony of wild field mice in July 2000. ISS FUBAR could have bred 33 generations of mice to date, birth to delivery generation time of 13 weeks. We would know whether mammals can evolve to living weightless – and what changes are important.

    Mars is a zero. Its only allure is that equipment can be landed and pursue process. Venus won’t cooperate. The gas giants and their moons receivein sufficient sunlight to power trash repackagers.

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