Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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Signs of recent volcanic eruption on Mars hint at habitats for life

The New York Times reports:

Mars was once home to seas and oceans, and perhaps even life. But our neighboring world has long since dried up and its atmosphere has been blown away, while most activity beneath its surface has long ceased. It’s a dead planet.

Or is it?

Previous research has hinted at volcanic eruptions on Mars 2.5 million years ago. But a new paper suggests an eruption occurred as recently as 53,000 years ago in a region called Cerberus Fossae, which would be the youngest known volcanic eruption on Mars. That drives home the prospect that beneath its rusty surface pocked with gigantic volcanoes that have gone silent, some volcanism still erupts to the surface at rare intervals.

“If this deposit is of volcanic origin then the Cerberus Fossae region may not be extinct and Mars may still be volcanically active today,” scientists at the University of Arizona and Smithsonian Institution, write in their paper — which was posted online ahead of peer review and has been submitted to the journal Icarus.

The site of the potential eruption, seen in images from Martian orbit, is near a large volcano called Elysium Mons. It is about 1,000 miles east of NASA’s stationary InSight lander, which touched down on Mars in 2018 to study tectonic activity on the red planet. Appearing like a crack in the surface, the feature looks like a recent fissure eruption, where subsurface volcanic activity has caused superheated volcanic ash and dust to burst through the surface. It is similar to deposits caused by pyroclastic eruptions that scientists have spotted on the moon, Mercury and Earth.

Originating from magma deep beneath the surface, the eruption would have reached a height of several miles before falling back to the ground. By comparison, the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 produced 100 times as much material, said Steven Anderson, an earth sciences professor at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, who was not involved in the paper. [Continue reading…]

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