Giant volcano discovered on Mar’s equator

Its discovery points to an exciting new place to search for life.

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At the 55th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference held in The Woodlands, Texas, researchers shared some huge news about Mars. They found a massive volcano and maybe some ice hidden under the ground in a special area on Mars near the equator.

The orbiting spacecraft taking pictures of Mars since the 1970s, but this volcano was challenging to see because it’s deeply eroded beyond easy recognition. The massive volcano had been hiding in plain sight for decades in one of Mars’ most iconic regions, at the border between the massive canyons of Valles Marineris (Valleys of Mariner) and the heavily fractured maze-like Noctis Labyrinthus (Labyrinth of the Night).

Scientists designated this volcano as “Noctis volcano” and situated it at 7° 35′ S, 93° 55′ W. It is 450 kilometers (280 miles) wide and rises to a height of +9022 meters (29,600 feet). The enormous size and intricate history of modifications suggest that it has been active for a very long period. There is a thin layer of recent volcanic material in its southeast, and under that, glacial ice is probably still present.

Newly discovered giant volcano is located in the “middle of the action” on Mars
Newly discovered giant volcano is located in the “middle of the action” on Mars. Topographic map showing the iconic location of the Noctis volcano between the largest volcanic and canyon provinces on Mars. (Credit: Background image: NASA Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) digital elevation model. Geologic interpretation & annotations by Pascal Lee and Sourabh Shubham 2024).).

The discovery of this volcano and maybe ice is interesting because it provides:

  • A new spot for studying Mars’ history.
  • Searching for evidence of life.
  • Considering future robotic and human exploration.

Scientists were studying the geology of an area where they found the glacier‘s remains last year. They realized that they were inside a huge and deeply eroded volcano.

In the eastern part of Noctis Labyrinthus, many clues show it’s a volcano. One big clue is the shape of the land. In the middle, some raised areas form a curved line. These raised areas are called mesas. They’re higher up and slope down from the middle. The slopes around these mesas are gentle and stretch out for about 140 miles in different directions. This shape is typical of volcanic areas.

Topographic map of the Noctis volcano
Topographic map of the Noctis volcano. The Noctis volcano does not present the conventional cone shape of a typical volcano because a long history of deep fracturing and erosion has modified it. However, upon close inspection, key features indicative of a volcano are recognizable. Within the “inner zone” delineating the highest elevation remains of the volcano, an arc of high mesas marks the central summit area, culminating at +9022 m (29,600 ft). Preserved portions of the volcano’s flanks extend downhill in different directions to the outer edge of the “outer zone,” 225 km (140 miles) away from the summit area. A caldera remnant – the remains of a collapsed volcanic crater once host to a lava lake – can be seen near the center of the structure. Lava flows, pyroclastic deposits (made of volcanic particulate materials such as ash, cinders, pumice and tephra) and hydrothermal mineral deposits occur in several areas within the perimeter of the volcanic structure. The map also shows the rootless cone field and possible extent of shallow buried glacier ice reported in this study, in relation to the “relict glacier” discovered in 2023. Noctis Landing, a candidate landing site for future robotic and human exploration, is also shown. (Credit: Background images: NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) Context Camera (CTX) mosaic and Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) digital elevation model. Geologic interpretation & annotations by Pascal Lee & Sourabh Shubham 2024).

In the middle of this area, there’s something called a caldera remnant. It’s like a leftover piece from a volcanic crater that collapsed. This crater used to hold a lake of lava. Around the area, there are also lava flows, deposits made of different volcanic materials like ash and rocks, and some minerals that have water in them. These things show that there were volcanic activities here in the past.

Sourabh Shubham, a graduate student at the University of Maryland’s Department of Geology and the study’s co-author, said, “This area of Mars is known to have a wide variety of hydrated minerals spanning a long stretch of Martian history. A volcanic setting for these minerals had long been suspected. So, it may not be too surprising to find a volcano here. In some sense, this large volcano is a long-sought ‘smoking gun.'”

Detailed Mars data analysis revealed the Noctis volcano
Detailed Mars data analysis revealed the Noctis volcano. Detailed analysis of the altimetry of the region using NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) data, in combination with high resolution imaging data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) and Context Imager (CTX), and from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express (MEX) High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) enabled the discovery of the Noctis volcano. In addition to the volcano’s summit, caldera remnant, and inner and outer zones, the topographic map on the right shows the “relict glacier” discovered in 2023 and Noctis Landing, a candidate landing site for future robotic and human exploration. (Credit: Left: Mars Express HRSC color mosaic © ESA/DLR/FU Berlin CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO; Right: Background image: same as Left; NASA MGS MOLA digital elevation model. Geologic interpretation and annotations by Pascal Lee and Sourabh Shubham 2024).

In addition to the volcano, the team discovered a sizable volcanic deposit encircling the area, which is roughly 1930 square miles. In this location, several low, circular, and stretched-out bumps resemble blisters. This is referred to as “blistered terrain.” Scientists think these mounds are “rootless cones,” created when hot volcanic material settles on top of ice or water, resulting in steam-induced explosions or swelling.

In the same volcanic region just a year prior, Lee, Shubham, and their colleague John W. Schutt discovered the remnants of a glacier, maybe an ancient glacier. They saw a light-colored deposit that was primarily composed of jarosite, a sulfate salt. It appeared that the sulfate deposit was created by the reaction of volcanic elements with the ice on top of a glacier.

In our latest investigation, comparable sulfate deposits were discovered in the rootless cones. This implies that a large sheet of glacier ice may be beneath the volcanic material.

Perhaps as a result of glaciers, heat erosion, and fissures, the Noctis volcano has undergone significant alteration over time. Scientists believe it resembles a massive shield composed of layers of ice from previous snowfall, lava, and volcanic debris.

Noctis volcano in 3D
Noctis volcano in 3D. Anaglyph image showing portions of the Noctis volcano’s 250 km (155 mile) diameter inner zone of high elevation remains, and 450 km (280 mile) diameter outer zone of other remains associated with the volcano. In addition to the volcano’s summit, caldera remnant, and inner and outer zones, this 3D map shows the “relict glacier” discovered in 2023 and Noctis Landing, a candidate landing site for future robotic and human exploration. (Credit: Background image: Mars Express anaglyph (3D) mosaic © ESA/DLR/FU Berlin CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO. Geologic interpretation and annotations by Pascal Lee and Sourabh Shubham 2024).

Large sections of the volcano collapsed as the ice beneath it melted, opening fissures and cracks and allowing lava to rise to the surface in various locations.

Subsequent glaciers continued to erode at the volcano, forming the canyons that are visible today. Probably, the “relict glacier” and the possibly buried glacier ice are remnants of the last glacial period that covered the Noctis volcano.

There’s still a lot about this newly discovered volcano. It is known to be active, but since when remains to be determined. It also needs to be clarified if it’s still active and might erupt again, even though it’s had eruptions in more recent times.

As mysteries surrounding the Noctis volcano continue to puzzle scientists, the site is already emerging as an exciting new location to study Mars’ geologic evolution, search for life, and plan future robotic and human exploration.

Possible buried glacier ice near the base of the Noctis volcano
Possible buried glacier ice near the base of the Noctis volcano. A well-preserved volcanic lava flow and pyroclastic deposit in the southeastern part of the Noctis volcano suggest that the volcano remained active even in relatively recent times. The pyroclastic deposit presents “blisters” at its surface, interpreted as “rootless cones” or steam vents produced when the hot pyroclastic materials came in contact with H2O ice. Breaches in the pyroclastic deposit reveal light-toned deposits (LTDs) of sulfate salts, expected products of chemical reactions between pyroclastic materials and H2O ice. The largest LTD of sulfates in this area had already been described as a “relict glacier,” as it presents a wide range of morphologic traits specific to glaciers, suggesting that glacier ice might still be preserved, only protected under a thin layer of sulfate salts. By extension, the rootless cones and other sulfate deposits in this area may be blanketing even more glacier ice. (Credit: Background images: NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), Context Imager (CTX), and Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM). Geologic interpretation and annotations by Pascal Lee and Sourabh Shubham 2024).

Dr. Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist with the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute based at NASA Ames Research Center, and the lead author of the study, said“It’s a combination of things that makes the Noctis volcano site exceptionally exciting. It’s an ancient and long-lived volcano so deeply eroded that you could hike, drive, or fly through it to examine, sample, and date different parts of its interior to study Mars’ evolution through time. It has also had a long history of heat interacting with water and ice, which makes it a prime location for astrobiology and our search for signs of life.”

“Finally, with glacier ice likely still preserved near the surface in a relatively warm equatorial region on Mars, the place is looking very attractive for robotic and human exploration.”

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