April 13, 2024

Mars volcano the size of Mount Everest was hiding in plain sight, report says

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Scientists may have identified a huge, oddly shaped volcano, taller than Mount Everest, on the surface of Mars — and it’s been hiding in plain sight for decades, according to new research.

The possible identification of a previously unknown Martian volcano has sent ripples through the planetary science community since Mars Institute President Dr. Pascal Lee, lead author of a summary on the formation, presented the findings March 13 at the 55th Mars Conference. Lunar and Planetary Science in The Woods, Texas.

O The research sparked enthusiasm – and attracted some skeptics.


Some of the largest volcanoes on Mars are relatively close to the proposed “Noctis volcano”. Shown here: 1) Olympus Mons, the highest known volcano in our solar system. two) The Tharsis plateau, home to three enormous volcanoes. 3) Noctis Labyrinth 4) Valles Marineris, a neighboring region of canyons

Lee said he and Sourabh Shubham, a doctoral student in geology at the University of Maryland, College Park, identified a volcano in the Noctis Labyrinthus region of Mars — a twisted patch of terrain near the equator with a network of canyons. The volcano in the “Labyrinth of Night” may have eluded scientists, despite years of satellite observation, because it does not tower over the surrounding landscape, Lee said.

“It is also deeply eroded and consumed and destroyed by erosion to the point that unless you are actually looking for a volcano, it would be very difficult to identify it very quickly,” he told CNN.

If the team is correct, the revelation could have broad implications for scientists’ understanding of Martian geology. And, Lee said, he hopes the discovery could help attract future exploratory missions to the area in search of water ice or even signs of life.

Initially, the research team’s efforts led to a study presented in March 2023 that suggested the Noctis Labyrinthus region may be home to a massive glacier covered in salt deposits.

Since then, Lee and Shubham have been poring over data collected by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, trying to determine whether water might still be frozen beneath the salt.


A close-up of a section of The Tharsis Rise showing: 1) Noctis Labyrinth. two) Suspected volcano caldera not confirmed. 3) Relic Glacier. 4) Marineris Valleys.

The hunt for water ice is key – it’s a resource that could be used to support human exploration on Mars or even converted into rocket fuel. As he scanned the landscape, however, Lee said he was struck by “this little lava flow next to the glacier.”

The lava had not yet been fully oxidized, a process that would leave it the same muddy orange hue as the surrounding surface, Lee said.

This indicated that the lava could be relatively recent – ​​the first hint that an undetected volcano could be lurking nearby.

“We started looking closely at the landscape,” Lee said. “And sure enough, when we looked at the high points in this region, we noticed that they formed an arch.”

This arch resembles a shield volcano, Lee added, a type of volcano that also exists on Earth. Shield volcanoes are characterized by their wide, gently sloping sides – appearing wider than they are tall.

This discovery led Lee and Shubham to gather more evidence, eventually determining that a 29,600-foot (9,022-meter) peak was actually the tip of a Martian volcano.

That’s a few hundred feet higher than Mount Everest, which rises to 29,029 feet (8,848 meters) above sea level.

Scientists have cataloged and named more than a dozen volcanoes on Mars, including Olympus Mons, the tallest known volcano in our solar system.


Olympus Mons, at 25 kilometers (16 miles) high, is the largest known volcano in the solar system

Lee said he and Shubham are working to lay out the findings in a peer-reviewed paper, more detailed work that could give the idea more credibility across the scientific community.

But the hypothesis of the volcano’s existence already attracts attention.

“It’s a big deal,” said Dr. Adrien Broquet, a Humboldt researcher at the German Aerospace Center who has studied Martian volcanoes. “It’s as tall as the tallest mountain we have on Earth. So it’s not a small feature on Mars that we had a question mark for. And we have a lot of question marks (over the surface of Mars).

The journey to identify this volcano — which the team tentatively named “Noctis volcano” — began in 2015, Lee said, when NASA asked the planetary science community to propose intriguing locations on Mars where the U.S. space agency could land future missions. human exploitation.

Lee proposed a site just east of Noctis Labyrinthus, which was nicknamed “Noctis Landing.”

The site could be an ideal place to look for alien life on Mars, said Lee, who is also a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to searching for evidence of extraterrestrial life.

“Of course we’re not looking for a little green man with antennae,” Lee said. “But we’re looking for microbes that wouldn’t fit into Earth’s tree of life.”

Noctis Labyrinthus could be ideally situated for this hunt, according to Lee.

“If you want to look for ancient life, head east (from Noctis Labyrinthus) to the canyons,” Lee said, referring to Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in our solar system.

There, explorers could “sift through rock layers” looking for fossils, he said.

Or, Lee suggested, a mission could venture west to a volcanic region called the Tharsis Plateau, where hot caves might harbor living microbes.

With such tantalizing potential, Lee committed to studying Noctis Labyrinthus to build a case for sending exploratory missions there.

A volcano, a glacier and the history of Mars

The existence of a volcano on Noctis Labyrinthus could also help explain the creation of this bizarre landscape.

Scientists suspect that magma bubbling up from the interior of Mars formed the labyrinthine valleys, but the details are up for debate.

One theory is that when magma rose into the Martian crust, it cracked and shattered, leaving behind a maze of branching canyons.

Lee defends an alternative theory: this model suggests that the Martian crust in Noctis Labyrinthus is filled with ice. And when the magma penetrated, it melted or vaporized the ice and rocks below the surface, causing parts of the land to collapse.

The existence of a volcano in the region, Lee said, may offer further support for the latter theory.

Three scientists who were not involved in the research told CNN they wouldn’t be surprised if a volcano was hidden near Noctis Labyrinthus.

Volcanoes of all shapes and sizes permeate the surface of the wider region, including the Tharsis Plateau west of Noctis Labyrinthus.

However, Ernst Hauber, a scientist at the Institute for Planetary Research at the German Aerospace Center, is a community geologist who would like to see a peer-reviewed paper before accepting Lee and Shubham’s version of events.

“They are very vague about the chronology, about the timing of events,” Hauber told CNN, referring to the brief summary published by Lee and Shubham.

Among Hauber’s questions: If the volcano may still be active, as Lee suggests, why hasn’t it poured lava into the surrounding canyons? Why aren’t there more visible signs of lava near the peak? Could this really be an impact crater that Lee is looking at?

“I’m a little skeptical for a number of reasons,” Hauber said.

Broquet of the German Aerospace Center and Dr. David Horvath — a research scientist at the nonprofit Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona — said in separate interviews that they would like to see additional data that supports the ideas presented by Lee and Shubham. .

But Broquet and Horvath said they find the abstract intriguing.

“This seems like a very good candidate (for a volcano),” Horvath said.

Lee said he welcomes contributions from other scientists, eager for additional evidence to support his research. But he also expresses confidence.

“In this case, my feeling is that there really isn’t room for plausible alternative hypotheses,” Lee said, adding that he is 85% to 90% certain that he has located a new Martian volcano.

“But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” Lee added, citing the late astronomer Carl Sagan, for whom he once worked as an assistant professor.

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