Valles Marineris in the east of the Tharsis volcanic region. Higher regions are marked red in this topographic map, while yellow and green indicate moderate elevations, and the lowest points are shown in blue (MOLA, NASA/JPL/University of Arizona).
Prepared by: Institute Geophysics of the Czech Academy of Science
Photo: Introductory image shows the group of terrestrial scoria cones in the Harrat Lunayyir area, Saudi Arabia (photographed by John Pallister, U.S. Geological Survey).

Researchers have discovered a region on Mars with 130 small volcanoes at the base of Valles Marineris – a potential site for uncovering fossilized life.

Published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, the study was led by Petr Brož from the Institute of Geophysics of the Czech Academy of Science.

Their work points to magma–water interaction, an environment of astrobiological interest — perhaps associated with late-stage activity in the evolution of Valles Marineris — and suggest that the floor of Coprates Chasma is a promising target for on-the-spot exploration of Mars.

Volcanic cones, solidified lava flows

Scientists have wondered for decades whether there has been volcanic activity within Valles Marineris. The new work by the Mars researchers reveals that the Coprates Chasma canyon — one of the lowest points in Valles Marineris — is home to a large number of volcanic cones and solidified lava flows.

Their findings are based on the analysis of high-resolution images acquired by the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which reveal the cones of scoria and volcanic ash.

In a Czech Academy of Sciences press statement, Brož says: “The 400-meter high cones have also been interpreted as mud volcanoes. But we observed morphological details such as bulging of solidified lava caused by the injection of more recent lava beneath the hardened crust, as well as characteristic surface patterns identical to lava fields on Earth. This reinforces our assumption that we are looking at magmatic rock volcanism, and not liquid mud.”

Young volcanoes at the base of Coprates Chasma on Mars (image obtained by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA/JPL/University of Arizona).

Ideal abode

Along with the existence of volcanoes on the floor of the eastern Valles Marineris, their young age is the second surprise of this study.

“In geological terms, the volcanic cones are very young, just 200 to 400 million years in age,” explains Gregory Michael from the Freie Universität Berlin, one of the study’s four authors. Therefore, the volcanoes in Coprates Chasma are unrelated to the original formation of the Valles Marineris, as they are significantly younger.

According to co-investigator James Wray from the Georgia Institute of Technology, mineralogical compositions detected in their research can be produced by so-called hydrothermal processes.

This also renders Coprates Chasma interesting for astrobiological studies, Wray notes, as microorganisms on Earth find such warm, energy-rich and mineral-rich environments an ideal abode.

Furthermore, Valles Marineris is home to seasonal flows on warm Martian slopes. These features are called recurring slope lineae (RSL) thought to be salty water flows. “I absolutely agree that the RSL provide yet another exciting reason to prioritize Coprates Chasma as a potential future landing site,” Wray told Inside Outer Space.

The valleys of Coprates Chasma in the east of Valles Marineris. This perspective view was created using stereo image data from DLR’s HRSC (High Resolution Stereo Camera) camera on board ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft (ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC-BY-SA 3.0 IGO).

Future investigation

Spacecraft observations from MRO as well as Europe’s Mars Express makes the volcanic field of Coprates Chasma an interesting area for a future investigation of whether life may have emerged in these warm and aqueous environments on Mars.  Therefore, this area may well hold bio-signatures on Mars.

“But Coprates Chasma is not just interesting with regard to the question of previous life on Mars. The region would also be an excellent landing site for future Mars Rovers,” adds planetary geologist Ernst Hauber from the German Aerospace Center (DLR). “Here we could investigate many scientifically important and interesting topics. Analyzing samples for their elemental isotopic fractions would allow us to determine with far greater precision when the volcanoes were actually active.”

Hauber explains that on the towering, steep walls, the geologic evolution of the Valles Marineris acts almost like a history book – gypsum strata and layers of old, crustal rocks can be observed, as well as indications for liquid water trickling down the slopes even today during the warm season.

Hauber concludes: “That is as much Mars geology as you can get!”

For more information on this new Mars research, go to:

“Amazonian volcanism inside Valles Marineris on Mars” at:

One Response to “Mars Discovery Points to Valles Marineris: Hotbed for Fossilized Life?”

  • Great photos, and great to see the different geological structures, etc. Will be so fascinating to see the answers to so many of scientist’s questions.

    Can any of the current rovers or technology determine if these were active? And what might the core of Mars look like?

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