In a new set of experiments, scientists demonstrated that mud volcanoes in an area of Mars called Acidalia Planitia could finally shed some light on whether or not life exists on the planet.
Astronomers and astrobiologists have been trying to answer this question for decades, but thus far their efforts have been largely in vein, due primarily to the expensive nature of mission to the Red Planet.
But the northern plains on our neighboring planet may help answer some of the most interesting mysteries in the world, seeing how they constantly spew out matter from underneath the surface.
One of the main goals of Martian studies is penetrating the superficial ground layer, and taking a look at what lies underneath. Both Spirit and Opportunity are in charge of analyzing rocks on Mars.
A future European rover that will be launched in a few years carries with it a drill that will allow it to penetrate up to two meter underground, and collect samples from those locations.
But landing a rover, or even a lander, near the mud volcanoes could make the task a lot easier, experts believe. The robotic explorer will know precisely how to look for signs of biology in the mud.
If life existed on Mars in the past, or if it's still present there now, then it surely left, or is leaving, signs. These so-called signatures can be easily detected with specialized astrobiology instruments.
“If there was life on Mars, it probably developed in a fluid-rich environment. Mud volcanoes themselves are an indicator of a fluid-rich subsurface, and they bring up material from relatively deep parts of the subsurface that we might not have a chance to see otherwise,” says Dorothy Oehler.
She is the lead author of a new study detailing the findings, which was published in the August issue of the esteemed scientific journal Icarus.
The expert is based at the NASA Johnson Space Center, in Houston, Texas, where she holds an appointment in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate.
“The Oehler paper adds to [previous studies] by documenting in much greater detail [the] number and distribution [of the mud volcanoes] and analyzes more deeply their origin and possible implications as paleo-habitats,” explains Kenneth Tanaka.
The scientist is based at the US Geological Survey's (USGS) Astrogeology Science Center, Space reports.
The images on which the new research was based were captured by the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has been orbiting the Red Planet for more than 4 years.