An open giant volcano on Mars may be a haven for life

At the 55th Conference on Lunar and Planetary Sciences, held in Woodlands, Texas, scientists announced the discovery of a giant volcano and a possible layer of buried relict glacier in the eastern part of the Martian volcanic province of Tharsis near the equator of the planet. 

Illustration of the Noctis volcano on Mars when it was active. The image is generated by Gencraft artificial intelligence

The giant volcano that had been hiding in plain sight for decades in one of the most iconic regions of Mars, on the border between the heavily broken labyrinth of Noctis Labyrinthus (Labyrinth of the Night) and the monumental canyons of Valles Marineris (Valleys of Mariner). Noctis volcano is a temporary name until it gets an official name. Its height reaches 9022 meters, its width is 450 kilometers, and the gentle outer slopes extend for 225 kilometers in different directions. The giant size of the volcano and the complex history of its modifications indicate that it has been active for a very long time.

Complex history of formation

Noctis volcano has a long and complex history of formation as a result of a combination of fracturing, thermal erosion and glacial erosion. Researchers interpret the volcano as a huge shield consisting of layered accumulations of pyroclastic materials, lavas and ice. Moreover, the latter was formed as a result of the repeated accumulation of snow and glaciers on its flanks for a long time.

The newly discovered giant volcano on Mars is located south of the planet’s equator, on the eastern edge of a wide regional topographic elevation called Tharsis, where three other well-known giant volcanoes are located: Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Arsia Mons. Authorship: NASA/USGS

In addition to the volcano, it is reported about the discovery of an extensive area of 5,000 km2 of volcanic deposits around the perimeter of the volcano, which consists of a large number of low, rounded and elongated, blister-like mounds. This area was formed as a result of an explosive release of steam venting or steam swelling, when a thin blanket of hot volcanic materials lies on a surface rich in water or ice. 

Topographic map showing the iconic location of the Noctis volcano between the largest volcanic and canyon provinces on Mars. Authorship: NASA Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA)

Scientists have also discovered the remains of a relict glacier through a large erosion hole in a volcanic area. They noticed light deposits of sulfate salt with morphological signs of a glacier, which indicates the possibility of the existence of a large layer of ice under the frozen volcanic cover.

Mysterious volcano

But much about the newly discovered giant volcano remains a mystery. Although it is clear that it has been active since the formation of the geological history of Mars, it is not known how ancient it is. It is also unknown whether it is still volcanically active and whether it may erupt again in the future. And if it has been active for a very long time, could the combination of prolonged heat and ice water allow this place to harbor life?

Topographic map of Noctis volcano. Authorship: NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) (CTX) и Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA)

The mysteries surrounding the Noctis volcano continue to puzzle scientists. But this object is already becoming a new interesting place to study the geological evolution of Mars, search for life and plan future missions to colonize the Red Planet.

Earlier, we reported on how Mount Olympus could be an island in the vast ocean of Mars.

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