Mars is Surprisingly Volcanically Active

Like many that grew up watching the skies, I have been captivated by the planets. Mars is no exception, with its striking red colour, polar caps and mysterious dark features. Many of the surface features have been driven by ancient volcanic activity but whether any geological activity moulds the terrain today is still subject to scientific debate.  A recent study however has revealed that Mars is surprisingly  active..even today!

Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and has captivated our imagination for centuries. It’s often called the red planet due to the amount of iron oxide in the fine powdery, dusty surface material. The atmosphere is thin and tenuous and is believed to be unable to support life.  Numerous probes have visited Mars to shape our current understanding but this new view is quite removed from the view during the days of Schiaparelli in the 19th Century. The poor quality telescopes of the day led to equally poor quality observations that erroneously recorded a surface criss-crossed with canals from an unknown alien civilization.  

Until recently, it has also been thought that Mars was volcanically inactive but a recent study by a team led by Joana Voigt from the Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory have shone new light on the story. The team combined data from ground penetrating radar and spacecraft images to develop a new model of Martian volcanism.

The use of the ground penetrating radar allowed the team to penetrate as deep as 140 meters below the surface and construct a 3D model of the lava flow in Elysium Planitia and use it to identify over 40 volcanic events with the most recent depositing at least 1,600 cubic kilometers of molten lava into the plain. Although the team are keen to stress that they have not observed any volcanic activity but believe that Mars may be far more active now than previously thought.

The study explored a vast, featureless plain on the Martian surface (which is known to be one of the youngest volcanic regions) and found far more volcanic activity than expected.  They found significant quantities of lava that had been erupted from cracks and fissures spanning timescales as recent as one million years – geologically that’s just a few days ago.

Adding to the conclusion of a more active Mars than before is the number of quakes detected by NASA’s InSight lander in recent years. Evidence also points to a number of significant floods in Elysium Planitia and that has implications for the possibility of Mars ever being capable of supporting life. Not just floods but evidence of ‘geyser’ like hydrothermal vents all of which help to support a model of Mars that is far from dormant.

Source : Recent volcanism on Mars reveals a planet more active than previously thought

Mark Thompson

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