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Martian Volcano Lakes Were Recently "Habitable"

May 27, 2014 05:18 PM EDT
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An erupting volcano covered in a large sheet of glacial ice may have created large lakes, which could have remained long enough to have hosted life, according to a new study.

The study, published in the journal Icarus describes how Martian lakes spotting the surface of the massive volcano Arisia Mons could have held life 210 million years ago - which is relatively recent compared to "once habitable" portions of the Red Planet discovered by past Mars rovers.

"If signs of past life are ever found at those older sites, then Arsia Mons would be the next place I would want to go," lead author Kat Scanlon said in a statement.

Working with researchers from the Lancaster Environment Center in the United Kingdom, Scanlon searched for geological evidence that Arisia Mons erupted around the same time that the ice shelf covering the volcano was present.

According to the study, she did not have to look far. Portions of the massive volacno surface - the third tallest on mars - were spotted with ridges and mounds that form on Earth when a lava flow is directed by melting ice. Pillow formations - volanic rock formations that are frequently seen following ocean-floor eruptions - were also seen, indicating that the eruption was heavily covered in melt-water.

The young researcher also was able to calculate - based on the sizes of the formations - how much lava was spewed from that single eruption; which in-turn allowed Scanlon to predict how much of the glacial sheet had melted into water to form lakes. She discovered that at least two of the lakes formed would have contained nearly 40 cubic kilometer of water each - the kind of lake that is notably visible even on a continental map.

The researchers were also able to determine that these lakes lasted for nearly 1000 years if not more, which biologists theorize could have been more than enough time for microbial life to develop.

The study was published online for the July issue of Icarus.

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