New research has suggested that some lava-like formations on Mars are actually the product of the mud that flowed like lava – not unlike traditional volcanoes like those we have on Earth.
For years, Petr Brož, a researcher at the Institute of Geophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences, has been fascinated by detailed satellite images showing unique characteristics on the Martian surface. Tens of thousands of kilometers–tall steep cones are scattered in the northern hemisphere of Mars, and each cone carries a small crater on top.
Brož wanted to know if they were made of magma or mud. But to study this, Brož and his colleagues would have to determine how mud could behave on the Martian surface. But none of the researchers he asked for knew.
Open University has the Mars Chamber, a low-pressure chamber capable of reproducing the atmospheric pressure and composition of Mars, as well as its surface temperature, Brož said in an email to CNN. Although still influenced by Earth’s gravity, rather than Mars, they are the closest researchers who can get to experiment on Mars.
“Playing with mud”
It is 3 feet in diameter and 5.9 feet in length, and during Brož’s experiments, things got a little confusing. For a month, they did an average of 10 hours a day in the lab, “playing with mud” to test what they could have done on Mars.
When the chamber was set to 4 negative Fahrenheit degrees, they poured mud. Surprisingly, the mud didn’t freeze immediately. Instead, it formed an icy crust on the liquid mud inside. The liquid mud would then pour from the cracks into the frozen crust, which would then refreeze.
Due to simulated Martian conditions, such as low atmospheric pressure, the water became unstable, boiled and evaporated. This caused the mud to cool and freeze.
The formations created by this process appear similar to the “ropy” lava flows in Hawaii and Iceland, where wavy surfaces are formed as the lava cools slowly.
Compared to the experiments with the mud at Earth’s atmospheric pressure, the mud did not form an icy crust, did not expand or create forms of lava even when the temperature dropped.
Brož did not expect the mud to move like lava on other planets and said that this “shook my world a little”.
It is probable that those cones on the Martian surface are actually sedimentary volcanoes in which the mud is brought to the surface from a depth of hundreds of feet to over a mile below it. “Sedimentary volcanoes work like an underground window,” he said.
Conical features can be found in the same area where long and wide canals left their mark on the Martian surface, revealing where giant floods probably erupted from below the surface. And this could have led to sedimentary volcanism, where pieces of rock and water explode like mud.
The presence of mud suggested something else that once existed on Mars: water. Mars probably had a stable warm environment, atmosphere and global magnetic field that allowed water to exist on the surface billions of years ago.
“If these characteristics are actually the result of sedimentary volcanism, this is telling us that in these areas somewhere underground it must be a source of mud,” said Brož. “In other words, there must be, or must have been, a kind of aquifer containing liquid water to mobilize the fine-grained sediments and bring them to the surface of Mars.”
It is difficult to estimate the age of the cones, but they are definitely younger than the plains on which they sit. Brož estimated that they could be between a few hundred million and 2 billion years old.
This makes studying Mars a bit more difficult in the future.
“The mud flows may seem quite similar to the magical lava flows on Mars,” said Brož. “So, in principle, we are complicating the future exploration of Mars via satellite imagery, as we are proposing that two very different mechanisms have caused similar characteristics, which will be difficult to distinguish from each other.”
If the streams are attributed to magma, this means that a source of magma and heat must be present nearby below the surface. And if it is sedimentary or muddy, this suggests liquid water – and heat that keeps the liquid water below the surface.
Brož believed that this type of sedimentary volcanism, or mud, could be present in other places in our solar system such as Ceres, a dwarf planet between Mars and Jupiter in the asteroid belt.
Some features on its surface, such as the Ahuna Mons mountain, as well as the luminous deposits in the Occatore crater, could be caused by water, rocks and salts brought to the surface. This suggests that liquid water, and perhaps even an ocean of muddy water, may be under the frozen crust of the dwarf planet.
The same could be true of other frozen moons, such as the moon of Jupiter Europe, the moon of Saturn Enceladus or the moon Triton of Uranus.
In the future, Brož wants to test more mud in the Chamber of Mars in different conditions.
During an experiment with the mud in the chamber, the pieces of mud actually levitated because the gases released by the mud were able to lift it for a period of time. These findings will be shared in a future study, he said.
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