New research suggests there may be volcanic activity which caused a buildup of liquid beneath the South polar ice cap on Mars to stay liquid despite freezing temperatures.

The new work, published in Geophysical Research Letters, theorises that heat flows observed on Mars were most likely caused by a subsurface magma chamber.

The authors, Michael M. Sori and Ali M. Bramson, go on to explain that observations of liquid levels on the planet suggest that volcanic activity occurred there “extremely recently”.

A step closer to finding life on Mars?

The study draws on radar data collected by Mars Express, the European Space Agency’s first mission, the European Space Agency’s first mission to another planet. It found bright radar reflections beneath the surface and these are believed to indicate local liquid underneath the south polar ice cap of Mars.

Only volcanic activity could have produced the source of underground heat which melted the ice, the authors theorise.

If the authors are correct in asserting volcanoes are active on Mars, it would give weight to the theory that life could be found on the planet.

Mars InSight lander

NASA are also studying possible recent volcanic activity on Mars

NASA’s InSight mission is also examining the possibility of volcanic activity on the red planet. The project’s second lander touched down earlier this week and will use heaters and sensors to measure the thermal conductivity beneath the surface.

It is expected the data gathered by InSight will need to be heavily filtered for noise, so full results of the lander’s exploration may not be known for years.

Sori and Bramson’s study follows a 2018 study published in Science which suggested there was a 19-kilometre (12 mile) wide liquid-water or slurry lake underneath the planet’s polar ice. That research concluded that a high concentration of salt (which lowers the freezing point of water) may have been responsible for keeping the water from freezing despite the low temperatures.

The more recent work seeks to show that pressure and salt alone could not have been responsible for the water not freezing.

Scientists have known of volcanoes on Mars, including the giant Olympus Mons, since exploratory missions in the 1970s but they were thought to be long dormant. Some theories suggest they have not been active for millions of years.

Farewell to ‘Opportunity’, the legendary Mars rover

In other Mars exploration news, NASA scientists have reluctantly said goodbye to the long-serving and much loved Opportunity Rover.

The rover stopped responding in June 2018 after being stuck in a severe dust storm. Engineers who had worked with the rover for years (it had been operating on Mars since 2004) had anthropomorphised the rover and carried out an extensive months-long recovery process in the hopes of restarting its mission.

Opportunity, or ‘Oppy’, had covered 45 kilometres (28 miles) in its 15 years on Mars and sent a wealth of valuable data and photos to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California before it came to grief in the dust storm.

Header image credit: NASA