New Theory: Olympus Mons Could Harbor Water, Life on Mars

Rice University professors Patrick McGovern and Julia Morgan are proposing that pockets of water could be trapped under Olympus Mons on Mars -- and could support life. Credit: Rice University

Olympus Mons is the latest hotspot in the hunt for habitable zones on Mars.

The Martian volcano is about three times the height of Mount Everest, but it’s the small details that matter to Rice University professors Patrick McGovern and Julia Morgan. After studying computer models of Olympus Mons’ formation, McGovern and Morgan are proposing that pockets of ancient water could still be trapped under the mountain. Their research is published in February’s issue of the journal Geology.

Olympus Mons is tall, standing almost 15 miles (24 km) high, and slopes gently from the foothills to the caldera, a distance of more than 150 miles (241 km). That shallow slope is a clue to what lies beneath, say the researchers. They suspect if they were able to stand on the northwest side of Olympus Mons and start digging, they’d eventually find clay sediment deposited there billions of years ago, before the mountain was even a molehill.

In modeling the formation of Olympus Mons with an algorithm known as particle dynamics simulation, McGovern and Morgan determined that only the presence of ancient clay sediments can account for the volcano’s asymmetric shape. The presence of sediment indicates water was or is involved.

The European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft has in recent years found abundant evidence of clay on Mars. This supports a previous theory that where Olympus Mons now stands, a layer of sediment once rested that may have been hundreds of meters thick.

Morgan and McGovern show in their computer models that volcanic material was able to spread to Olympus-sized proportions because of the clay’s friction-reducing effect, a phenomenon also seen at volcanoes in Hawaii.

Credit: Rice University
Credit: Rice University

But fluids embedded in an impermeable, pressurized layer of clay sediment would allow the kind of slipping motion that would account for Olympus Mons’ spread-out northeast flank – and they may still be there. And because NASA’s Phoenix lander found ice underneath the Martian surface last year, Morgan and McGovern believe it’s reasonable to suspect water could be trapped in the sediment underneath the mountain.

“This deep reservoir, warmed by geothermal gradients and magmatic heat and protected from adverse surface conditions, would be a favored environment for the development and maintenance of thermophilic organisms,” they wrote. On Earth, such primal life forms exist along deep geothermal vents on the ocean floor.

Finding a source of heat will be a challenge, Morgan and McGovern admit. “We’d love to have the answer to that question,” said McGovern. He noted that evidence of methane on Mars is considered by some to be another marker for life.

LEAD IMAGE CAPTION: Rice University professors Patrick McGovern and Julia Morgan are proposing that pockets of water could be trapped under Olympus Mons on Mars — and could support life. Credit: Rice University

Source: Eurekalert

21 Replies to “New Theory: Olympus Mons Could Harbor Water, Life on Mars”

  1. Again I ask: if the last rovers were so good and are still running…

    Wouldnt it be cheaper to mass produce them and send them to these new areas of interest? Send one to the volcano, I dont think the slope would prevent roving.

  2. Yesterday I read the ariticle posted under ‘Most Popular Articles’ (Upper left on this page) titled “The Mars landing approach: Getting large payloads to the surface of the red planet.” This was my first exposure to the unique problems associated with landing heavy spacecraft on the surface of Mars.

    It seems that now there might be more reasons than ever to land in the caldera of Mons Olympus? Be a good view anyway! AND an excellent platform for launching balloons or aircraft for further surface exploration

  3. I like the idea of using inlatable wings for such an ‘aircraft’. The wings might be filled with Hydrogen or Helium, increasing the lift characteristics of a winged vehicle while allowing balloon-like low speeds AND aerodynamic flight. This idea offers several advantages: It might lessen the expenditure of fuel for landing at altitude. The proposed inflatable winform vehicle would be lighter than a rigid wingform craft and such a vehicle would allow lower flight speeds and greater loitering capability.

  4. Something more?

    How about using a solar powered ‘Cold Fusion-like’ device to generate the Hydrogen used to inflate the wings?

    That is to say, from what I’ve read about ‘Cold Fusion’, it may be a method of generating a large amount of Hydrogen from a small amount of H3O… i.e. use the Hydrogen generated to fill the wings of a Mars glider and the Oxygen for fuel or breathing.

  5. Unfortunately I believe that landing on Olympus Mons is currently impossible because it is so high.
    Current missions cannot open parachutes/use thrusters higher than about 10 km altitude (relative to MOLA reference) but the top of Olympus Mons from the diagram is over 14 km (Wikipedia states 27 km) altitude. MSL will be going for a record of landing as “high” as 2 km altitude!
    The views from the top might be amazing though!

  6. Correction: 2km altitude was a limit for considering potential MSL landing sites. None of the shortlisted sites are that high as far as I am aware. Sorry.

  7. It does. But I’m getting fed up with the “only a theory” gang, so it bugs me when people who should know better propagates the error.

  8. Im I the only one to see it. When I first look at the attached map of Olympus Mons, I immediately thought it was a new designated National Park map.
    Please don’t tell me it is true, and that Olympus Mons in all down as a sanctuary and Mars heritage listed site!

  9. @ Sili.
    Yeah. But is a ” “only a theory” gang” only a theory?

  10. Has computer modelling actually proven anything, or does it just echo what the researchers were hoping to see? I don’t see how it is possible to input any unforseen data — only data that is already known, and colored by the predjudice of the researchers.

  11. @ Anne Minard:

    Yes, hypothesis lacks the flair of theory for a headline, that’s true, but there is something deeper. Regrettably, the distinction between hypothesis and theory have been blurred in the popular media. Too, many hypothesis have been called “a theory” way before enough confirming evidence was gathered.

    This tendency does not educate, it sensationalizes, then trivializes, and ultimately numbs the public to what is and what isn’t sound empirical scientific method.

    Part of this is the “rush” to convert “theory” into “facts” and thus drive the discussion and get the high ground. What is the high ground? In this instance, it’s clear, to generate political support for funding the project.

    Regrettably, this tendency for a rush to judgment leads scientists and observers to take positions, that once taken are hard to release, given what human nature is.

    It may be boring, and grab less attention (not what a journalist wants to be about, I know), but it is a “journal” of what actually is, and the last time I looked that still the basic premise in journalism.

    Just the facts.

  12. @ Salacious B. Crumb:

    You are going way too far in response to a relatively short comment.

    Of course, you are welcome to “fly speck” any comment you please, including mine, or maybe I should say, “especially mine.”

    But if you ignore human nature, it’s at your own credibility’s peril.

  13. @ Anaconda said:
    “Regrettably, the distinction between hypothesis and theory have been blurred in the popular media.”

    Of course, there is a distinction between the meaning of theory and Theory.
    The first is an idea, depending on the circumstances, to justify or decide a course of action.
    The second is based on a set of principles or laws which some scientific or sociological activity is fundamentally based. I.e Theory of Education, Theory of Gravitation or the Theory of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED).
    As for Anaconda’s; “Too, many hypothesis have been called “a theory” way before enough confirming evidence was gathered.”
    This misrepresents the truth somewhat, because hypothesis does not applies to Theory but does to “theory” in the course of some investigation. I.e. I can consider an number of possibilities to yield the best observational outcome – decided mostly on previous evidence or associated data. If it works, then great, then a new chink of the nature of things is revealed. However, if not, the outcome is never wasted, but does verified either in new avenues of investigation,or revise or refine knowledge.
    There is no “Part of this is the “rush” to convert “theory” into to judgement leads scientists and observers to take positions “facts” nor “tendency for a rush to judgment leads scientists and observers to take positions,” at all.

    Kepler, for example is a wise decision based on the last ten years of research. This is by observations of many exo-planets by many techniques since about 1991, which have now been refined and worked out instrument and technology. We have pushed the very envelope when it comes what we can do with our technology, and Kepler is the next step. Clearly it doesn’t take much to say if there are Jupiter sized planets, and regions of debris fields orbiting around stars. I.e. Vega and Beta Pictoris, then the question of Earth-like planets is a logical conclusion.
    It might be theory to some – but even non-scientists can see if it is a pretty good choice in experimentation. Even if no planets are found by Kepler, the basis of our curiosity from this mission is enough to find out if it is true or not.
    If we did nothing, especially in this mission alone, we learn nothing. IMO, judging by the responses to finding Earth-like planets is both exciting and what we all want to know. Hell, even my 8-year-old nephew is curious about the discovery of planets – his teacher told him at school.
    Yes science might take some chances, but they are calculated ones selected on merit from scientists, ethics committees, government, and the imagination of the public.
    The only “rush” at the moment is collecting some data to see if the effort has been all worthwhile.
    In the end, most do eagerly await an announcement that another Earth-type planet exists. For when that new headline arrives, our Universe will appear a little close and a little less lonely. I certain then, nobody will be bored. They will be riveted.

    Note: Sadly, much of what Anaconda writes here is only half-truth and one side of the coin only. Pity he just masks the truth by his already established personal agenda – discrediting what science (especially theoretical science) is about.

  14. Oh. Another small thing.
    Anaconda is neither a scientist, theoretician or mathematician.
    While his views are his own opinion and assessment, it does not reflect how science works or what scientists do.
    It works by; Observation goes with theory, theory goes to new observations. These are tested, and the technology improved, eventually refining our knowledge. The cycle goes on.
    Humankind benefits from better technology, and knowledge is improved.
    Were it not true the basis of our lives would no be as they are today. This is the real “high ground.”!

  15. Anaconda says:
    “You are going way too far in response to a relatively short comment.’
    No I didn’t go far enough…
    Hypothesis is better than theory, because “Theory” and “theory” is not understood by the media nor non-scientists.
    The word “theory” is so abused, that even you fail in its distinction.
    In fact “postulate” is better and stronger than a “hypothesis” as it does “suggest or assume the existence of some fact of truth based on reasoning or evidential belief.” Again this is not used due to general confusion.
    Each have very specific scientific usage that portray subtle but important different meanings.
    Lets consider another.’supposition’ versus ‘proposition’, let alone ‘conjecture’ and ‘theorem’.
    If it were me, as the editor of ‘Scientific American’, it would be titled; “New Possibility : Olympus Mons Could Harbor Water, Life on Mars.”
    The language to anyone is clear cut with out the scientific definition getting it the way.

    Note: In a recent post someone complained that they “didn’t like the word postulate” think it was the same meaning as ‘theory’ . How does a writer to such a broad audience supposed to make a judgement?

    Anoconda. Enough on esoterics please! Let those nice folks here have some peace and be allowed to make comments without the intimidation or mind games. Anne wrote and presented this pleasant article, there is no real need for any disruption. Thanks

  16. @RUF:

    Clearly, you need to educate yourself on what computer modelling is. No unknown data is input, but unknown data is output all the time. Initial conditions and results are very different things.

    As a glaring example, I suggest you look at your local weather forecast for the next few days. It may not be perfect, but it’s worlds closer than it would be without significant computer modelling. And I guarantee you, the people running the models have no preconceived notion of what the weather should be like on Tuesday.

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