Cauldrons of Life

One of the reasons we have been so intent on reaching Mars is so we can look for evidence of life that existed or still exists on the planet. Now, a new finding reveals Martian structures that may in fact house the ideal conditions for life.

This new study led by scientists at the University of Texas examined depressions in craters found within the Hellas Planitia and Galaxias Fossae regions of Mars. These depressions were first discovered in 2009 and were interesting to the researchers because they resembled each other as well as structures we have on Earth called ice cauldrons. Typically found in Iceland or Greenland, those depressions form when volcanic eruptions occur and melt ice sheets. This causes them to  display concentric fractures, like bull-eyes.

Joseph Levy/NASA

However, it wasn't just their similarity to ice cauldrons that made the researchers want to look further into these Martian structures. "We were drawn to this site because it looked like it could host some of the key ingredients for habitability — water, heat and nutrients," said lead researcher Joseph Levy in a statement.

After the researchers analyzed the structures using new stereoscopic photographs that could take 2D images and extract 3D information, they concluded that the one in Galaxias Fossae was most likely cause by an asteroid impact, but the one in Hellas could have been caused by a volcanic eruption, similar to how our own ice cauldrons formed on Earth.

Oddur Sigurðsson/Icelandic Meteorological Office

Ingredients for Life

If the researchers are right, their discovery would make the Hellas depression a good place to start in the hunt for Martian life when NASA sends a rover to the planet in 2020. The large amount of magma necessary to melt the ice to create the structure would have left behind liquid water while providing warmth and nutrients. "The possibility of liquid water formation during or subsequent to volcanism or an impact could generate locally enhanced habitable conditions, making these features tantalizing geological and astrobiological exploration targets," the researchers conclude in the report.

This isn't the first example of volcanic activity playing a role in the creation of life. In fact, a similar volcanic origin is one prominent theory for the start of life on Earth. According to some studies, volcanism may have played a huge part in the formation of peptides (long chains of amino acids that form the proteins at the core of living cells).

The identification of this place on Mars that may have liquid water and a volcano in close proximity to one another, all within a crater that might have been formed by an amino-acid bearing asteroid, significantly narrows down our search for life on the planet and is a promising step forward in the search for extraterrestrial life.

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