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'Mysterious dark deposit' suggests Mars volcanoes could still be active

A volcanically active area "could have provided favorable conditions for microbial life fairly recently," one scientist says.

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The research team is studying what looks like an explosive volcanic deposit around a fissure in the Elysium Planitia region.

NASA/JPL/MSSS/The Murray Lab
This story is part of Welcome to Mars, our series exploring the red planet.

Mars was once a hot spot for volcanic activity -- around 3 billion to 4 billion years ago. A team of scientists now suspects Mars could still be volcanically active, after spotting what may be evidence of a recent eruption dating to within the last 50,000 years. The discovery could have implications for finding signs of microbial life on the planet.

Planetary Science Institute (PSI) research scientist David Horvath is the lead author of the paper Evidence for geologically recent explosive volcanism in Elysium Planitia, Mars in the journal Icarus.

The paper zeroes in on a spot on the Elysium Planitia region of Mars and what Horvath called "a mysterious dark deposit, covering an area slightly larger than Washington DC" in a PSI statement on Thursday. The deposit, which appears to be a thin layer of ash and rock, is along a fissure. 

The team used data and imagery from Mars spacecraft to support the idea of a volcanic origin for the feature, though there are questions around how it came to be. "Sustaining magma near the surface of Mars so late in Mars history with no associated lava flows would be difficult and thus a deeper magmatic source would likely be required to create this eruption," said Horvath.

Researchers have seen signs of smaller eruptions dating to around 3 million years ago, but this new spot would shake up the timeline considerably. Though 50,000 years ago may not sound recent in human terms, Horvath puts it into perspective: "If we were to compress Mars geologic history into a single day, this would have occurred in the very last second." 

This map of the Elysium Planitia region of Mars shows the location of the InSight lander and the Cerberus Fossae area, with the deposit marked by the white box.

MOLA Science Team

Elysium Planitia is also home to NASA's Mars InSight lander, which is located about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) away from the deposit. 

Insight has been gathering data on Marsquakes, a couple of which came from the same region as the possible eruption site, a spot called Cerberus Fossae. There could be a connection between seismic activity and magma movement below the surface.

All of this has implications for one of our biggest questions about Mars. Was it habitable? "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," said Horvath.

Mars is full of scientific surprises and this isn't the first suggestion that the red planet may be hiding some volcanic secrets. A paper in 2019 suggested that a hidden lake under the southern ice cap could be heated by an underground magma chamber.

Between the quakes and the potential volcanic activity, Mars may be a busier place than it seems. "All these data seem to be telling the same story," said co-author Jeff Andrews-Hanna in a University of Arizona statement. "Mars isn't dead."