Lancaster University

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LU Researchers Say Mars Has Conditions to Sustain Life

07/30/2003 13:42:23

Work by Lancaster University researchers has shown that water floods on Mars have been driven by volcanic activity in the recent past and that conditions may still exist suitable for life to flourish.

Professor Lionel Wilson and Dr. Karl Mitchell from Lancaster's Environmental Science department have found that liquid water and volcanism interacted on Mars in (geologically) recent history, providing conditions suitable for life. They also suggest that such interactions may recur in the future.

Professor Wilson explained : "As the surface of Mars is generally below freezing, so that any shallow water will be in the form of ice, it's unlikely that life exists there at ground level. But the presence of both liquid water at depth and volcanism provides conditions suitable for the emergence and sustenance of life. So, just as life thrives around volcanic vents at the bottom of Earth's oceans, so too might life exist in water reservoirs within the Martian crust. This means we need to move the search for life down a few kilometres or look at locations where water has recently erupted onto the surface."

"This evidence that large-scale, long-lived sub-surface reservoirs may be common even today, combined with the evidence of continuing volcanic activity, improves the odds that at depth we might find surviving organisms from earlier, more benign periods of Martian history."

This August, Mars gets closer to Earth than it has for the last 60,000 years, and several missions are heading there to capitalise on this, with a major objective being the search for life. Many researchers have been studying the massive water floods at Athabasca Valles, close to the equator, which probably occurred within the last 10 million years; - geologically very recent on a planet that is more than four billion years old. The latest work shows that the water originated from large, sub-surface reservoirs. The recent research at Lancaster show that the water, kept liquid by the natural geothermal heat of the planet, has been released through cracks caused by volcanic 'dykes' - fractures below the ground caused by, and filled with, rising magma.

The existence of such recent dykes is controversial. No evidence for active volcanism has been seen since records began, and so most scientists thought that Mars was volcanically extinct. However, in other recent work, Prof. Wilson and colleagues showed that volcanic centres on Mars have a cycle of activity, with approximately 100s of millions of years of 'lull', interspersed with about a million years of activity. Now they are proposing that the dykes demonstrate that the surviving volcanic centres on the planet are experiencing a lull. Unfortunately, given the estimated durations of these lulls, the odds are against us seeing active volcanism on Mars within our lifetimes.