Braided fluvial channels (inset) emerge from the edge of glacial deposits roughly 210 million years old on the Martian volcano Arsia Mons, nearly twice as high as Mount Everest. (Colors indicate elevation.) Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University/Brown University

Braided fluvial channels (inset) emerge from the edge of glacial deposits roughly 210 million years old on the Martian volcano Arsia Mons, nearly twice as high as Mount Everest. (Colors indicate elevation.)
Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University/Brown University

As NASA’s Curiosity rover wheels about the Red Planet, the robot is on the lookout for habitable environments – sites that could have supported microbial life in the past.

But new research led by a Brown University researcher suggests that slopes of a giant Martian volcano — once covered in glacial ice — may have been home to one of the most recent habitable environments yet found on Mars.

Arsia Mons is the third tallest volcano on Mars and one of the largest mountains in the solar system. A new analysis of the landforms surrounding Arsia Mons shows that eruptions along the volcano’s northwest flank happened at the same time that a glacier covered the region around 210 million years ago.

The heat from those eruptions would have melted massive amounts of ice to form englacial lakes — bodies of water that form within glaciers like liquid bubbles in a half-frozen ice cube.

Lakes colonized by microbial life?

Kathleen Scanlon, a graduate student at Brown University, led the new research work regarding Arsia Mons, published in the scientific journal, Icarus.

Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that the lakes could have persisted for hundreds or even a few thousand years, according to a press statement from Brown University.

That may have been long enough for the lakes to be colonized by microbial life forms, if in fact such creatures ever inhabited Mars.

The fact that the Arsia Mons site is relatively young makes it an interesting target for possible future exploration.

For example, the NASA Mars 2020 mission is a future rover designed to investigate key questions about the habitability of Mars, and assess natural resources and hazards in preparation for future human expeditions to the Red Planet.

The science instruments aboard the rover will enable scientists to identify and select a collection of rock and soil samples that will be stored for potential return to Earth in the future.

Scientists are now reviewing projected exploration sites for the Mars 2020 mission.

For more information on the Icarus paper, go to:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0019103514002164

Also, go to the Brown University release:

http://news.brown.edu/pressreleases/2014/05/mars

 

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