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  • Between 3 to 4 billion years ago, Mars  bubbled and burst with volcanic activity.  

  • The planet's stationary crust and lower surface  gravity meant volcanoes could build themselves up  

  • to staggering heights, like Olympus Mons which  stands nearly three times higher than Mount Everest.

  • Smaller eruptions continued in some isolated  

  • pockets as recently as 3 million years ago, but  today the planet seems a much quieter place.  

  • At least that's what we thought, until scientists  discovered volcanic activity that looks like it  

  • happened in the relatively recent past, and  their findings could have major implications  

  • for the search for life on the red planet. Planetary scientists were examining a pair of  

  • fissures known as Cerberus Fossae that stretch  for nearly 1000 kilometers across a volcanic  

  • plain in a region known as Elysium Planitia. They're thought to be a relatively young  

  • geological feature since in some places the walls  are almost vertical, an indication that erosion  

  • hasn't had time to wear them down to a shallower  angle. Indeed the whole volcanic plain appears  

  • fairly new, considering the low number of impact  craters compared to other regions of the planet

  • A rough estimate puts its age anywhere between  2.5 million and 500 thousand years old.  

  • But on closer inspection, one stretch of the  region that's just a few tens of kilometers  

  • long known as the Cerberus Fossae mantling unit  seems to indicate much more recent activity.

  • Using visible light and infrared images from NASA's  Mars Reconnaissance and Mars Odyssey Orbiters,  

  • the researchers spotted a mysterious dark spot  similar to ones on Mercury or the moon. Dark spots  

  • like this hint at explosive volcanic activity. The deposit of ash and rock sits on solidified  

  • lava flows, meaning it's from a different time  period than the other volcanic activity. In fact  

  • it may have happened very recently, judging by  how few impact craters there are in the area

  • How recently?  

  • This eruption could have  happened within the last 200,000 years

  • and perhaps even just 50,000 years ago. Sure, on a human scale that's a long time,  

  • but geologically speaking  that's practically yesterday

  • One of the scientists behind the research  said that if the entire history of Mars  

  • were compressed to a single day, this eruption  would have happened one second before midnight

  • This opens up the possibility that maybe  Mars isn't quite as dead as it seems,  

  • in a few different ways.  

  • Maybe there's still magma under the surface, and  all it needs is the right conditions to come out

  • One researcher pointed to an  impact crater just 10 kilometers  

  • from this newly discovered volcanic feature that  appears to be from about the same time period.  

  • He speculated the impact may have been the  trigger, though acknowledged it's a longshot.

  • It's also possible that magma could have come  into contact with ice under Mars' surface  

  • and the expanding water vapor led to an  eruption.   

  • Heat from subsurface magma and

  • that icy substrate could also create conditions  capable of sustaining microbial life in the  

  • recent past, or perhaps even to this day. But it's not all great news for the search  

  • for extraterrestrial life: scientists have  long thought methane in Mars' atmosphere was  

  • a potential biomarker. But volcanoes can also emit  methane, so if Mars is still volcanically active,  

  • that might be a comparatively anticlimactic  explanation for the methane instead

  • Researchers made this discovery by studying  the planet from orbit, but other probes could  

  • expand their knowledge. As it happens NASA's  InSight lander is in Elysium Planitia, and  

  • the seismometer on board has thus far detected two  Marsquakes coming from Cerberus Fossae which could  

  • be due to moving magma. Unfortunately, one InSight  instrument that would have been really useful for  

  • just this situation, a heat probe known as the  mole, wasn't able to bury itself deep enough in  

  • the Martian regolith and after almost two years  of troubleshooting, NASA gave up on the mole in  

  • January 2021. Perhaps a future mission with an  improved mole will reveal more about how heat  

  • moves inside the red planet, or maybe we'll get  lucky and something will set off another eruption.  

  • I just hope it happens soon, and by that I mean  within my lifetime and not 50,000 years from now

  • If you want to learn more about why the InSight  lander's mole couldn't dent Mars's surface by  

  • why the mission is still awesome  anyway, check out my video on it here

  • With the mixed news about what a volcanically  active Mars could mean for the search for  

  • extraterrestrial life, are you more or  less optimistic we'll find it on Mars?  

  • Let us know in the comments, don't forget to  subscribe, and I'll see you soon on Seeker.

Between 3 to 4 billion years ago, Mars  bubbled and burst with volcanic activity.  

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Could Mars’ Extinct Volcanoes Reawaken?

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    Summer posted on 2021/08/09
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