‘Young’ volcanic ash on Mars hints at conditions right for life

"This may be the youngest volcanic deposit yet documented on Mars," says David Horvath. "If we were to compress Mars' geologic history into a single day, this would have occurred in the very last second." (Credit: Jan Kronies/Unsplash)

Evidence of recent activity from volcanoes on Mars shows that eruptions could have taken place in the past 50,000 years, according to a new study.

Most volcanism on the red planet occurred between 3 and 4 billion years ago, with smaller eruptions in isolated locations continuing perhaps as recently as 3 million years ago. But, until now, there was no evidence to indicate Mars could still be volcanically active.

“The young age of this deposit absolutely raises the possibility that there could still be volcanic activity on Mars…”

Using data from satellites orbiting Mars, researchers discovered a previously unknown volcanic deposit.

“This may be the youngest volcanic deposit yet documented on Mars,” says lead author David Horvath, who did the research as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Arizona and is now a research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. “If we were to compress Mars’ geologic history into a single day, this would have occurred in the very last second.”

The volcanic eruption produced an 8-mile-wide, smooth, dark deposit surrounding a 20-mile-long volcanic fissure.

“When we first noticed this deposit, we knew it was something special,” says senior author Jeff Andrews-Hanna, an associate professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “The deposit was unlike anything else found in the region, or indeed on all of Mars, and more closely resembled features created by older volcanic eruptions on the moon and Mercury.”

Further investigation showed that the properties, composition, and distribution of material match what would be expected for a pyroclastic eruption—an explosive eruption of magma driven by expanding gasses, not unlike the opening of a shaken can of soda.

An aerial shot in black and white that shows a dark volcanic deposit
Recent explosive volcanic deposit around a fissure of the Cerberus Fossae system. (Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/The Murray Lab)

Ash spewed 6 miles into Mars atmosphere

The majority of volcanism in the Elysium Planitia region and elsewhere on Mars consists of lava flowing across the surface, similar to recent eruptions in Iceland being studied by coauthor Christopher Hamilton, associate professor of lunar and planetary sciences. Although there are numerous examples of explosive volcanism on Mars, they occurred long ago. However, this deposit appears to be different.

“This feature overlies the surrounding lava flows and appears to be a relatively fresh and thin deposit of ash and rock, representing a different style of eruption than previously identified pyroclastic features,” Horvath says. “This eruption could have spewed ash as high as 6 miles into Mars’ atmosphere. It is possible that these sorts of deposits were more common but have been eroded or buried.”

The site of the recent eruption is about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from NASA’s InSight lander, which has studied seismic activity on Mars since 2018. Two Marsquakes, the Martian equivalent of earthquakes, were found to originate in the region around the Cerberus Fossae, and recent work has suggested the possibility that these could be due to the movement of magma deep underground.

“The young age of this deposit absolutely raises the possibility that there could still be volcanic activity on Mars, and it is intriguing that recent Marsquakes detected by the InSight mission are sourced from the Cerberus Fossae,” Horvath says.

In fact, the team of researchers predicted this to be a likely location for Marsquakes several months before NASA’s InSight lander touched down on Mars.

Volcanic fissures and floods

A volcanic deposit such as this one also raises the possibility for habitable conditions below the surface of Mars in recent history, Horvath says.

“The interaction of ascending magma and the icy substrate of this region could have provided favorable conditions for microbial life fairly recently and raises the possibility of extant life in this region,” he says.

Similar volcanic fissures in this region were the source of enormous floods, perhaps as recently as 20 million years ago, as groundwater erupted out onto the surface.

Andrews-Hanna’s research group continues to investigate the causes of the eruption. Pranabendu Moitra, a research scientist in the geosciences department, has been probing the mechanism behind the eruption.

An expert in similar explosive eruptions on Earth, Moitra developed models to look at the possible cause of the Martian eruption. In a forthcoming paper in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, he suggests that the explosion either could have been a result of gases already present in the Martian magma, or it could have happened when the magma came into contact with Martian permafrost.

“The ice melts to water, mixes with the magma, and vaporizes, forcing a violent explosion of the mixture,” Moitra says. “When water mixes with magma, it’s like pouring gasoline on a fire.”

He also points out that the youngest volcanic eruption on Mars happened only 6 miles (10 kilometers) from the youngest large-impact crater on the planet—a 6-mile-wide crater named Zunil.

“The ages of the eruption and the impact are indistinguishable, which raises the possibility, however speculative, that the impact actually triggered the volcanic eruption,” Moitra says.

Several studies have found evidence that large quakes on Earth can cause magma stored beneath the surface to erupt. The impact that formed the Zunil crater on Mars would have shaken the red planet just like an earthquake, Moitra explains.

More eruptions to come?

While the more dramatic giant volcanoes elsewhere on Mars—such as Olympus Mons, the tallest mountain in the solar system—tell a story of the planet’s ancient dynamics, the current hotspot of Martian activity seems to be in the relatively featureless plains of the planet’s Elysium region.

“All these data seem to be telling the same story. Mars isn’t dead.”

It’s remarkable that one region hosts the epicenters of present-day earthquakes, the most recent floods of water, the most recent lava flows, and now an even more recent explosive volcanic eruption, says Andrews-Hanna.

“This may be the most recent volcanic eruption on Mars,” he says, “but I think we can rest assured that it won’t be the last.”

The volcanic deposit described in this study, along with ongoing seismic rumbling in the planet’s interior detected by InSight and possible evidence for releases of methane plumes into the atmosphere detected by NASA’s MAVEN orbiter, suggest that Mars is far from a cold, inactive world, Andrews-Hanna says.

“All these data seem to be telling the same story,” he says. “Mars isn’t dead.”

The paper appears in the journal Icarus.

Source: University of Arizona