Martian ice melted by volcanoes


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Two of the oldest volcanoes on Mars, which have been active for 3.5 billion years, are providing clues to the possibility of life on the planet, according to preliminary analysis by University at Buffalo geologists of new data from the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) and the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), currently orbiting the planet.

The scientists are presenting their results here today (March 12, 2001) at the 32nd Lunar Planetary Science Conference.

Located in the southern hemisphere of Mars, the volcanoes, named Tyrrhena Patera and Hadriaca Patera because they look like overturned saucers (patera is Latin for saucer), may still be active, said Tracy Gregg, Ph.D., UB assistant professor of geology and principal investigator.

"What's most intriguing about these volcanoes is that they are surrounded by channels," said Gregg. "Of all the volcanoes on Mars, these volcanoes have the largest and greatest numbers of channels associated with them, indicating that there was a lot of water around when they were forming, though there doesn't appear to be any around now."

She noted that the presence of life on Mars would require water, which currently is impossible because of the planet's frigid climate.

Gregg said that the channels, now essentially dry riverbeds, may have formed because the volcanoes, which act as giant thermal-energy units, could have melted ice on the ground. The water would have flowed downhill, away from the volcano's center, carving the channels.

"The combination of the heat and energy from the volcanoes and the liquid water makes conditions ripe for the evolution of life, at least as we understand it on Earth," said Gregg.

She added that volcanoes also are a source of many of the essential chemicals that may be necessary for the evolution of biological organisms.

Gregg and her colleagues are basing the preliminary analysis of new data gathered by the MOC and the MOLA. The data -- high-resolution pictures taken by the camera -- are transmitted by radio to Earth. The scientists then download them from the Malin Space Science Systems Web site at .

"The MOC is a very high-resolution camera that allows us to see features on Mars as small as 1 meter across, so we can start to see some really significant things, like individual boulders and piles of sediment, which is allowing us to really piece together Martian history," she said. The MOLA provides very detailed topography, measuring height differences as small as 1-2 centimeters, she added.

"When this mission is complete, we'll know the surface of Mars to within 1 meter," Gregg said. "There are areas on Earth we don't know that well, such as Antarctica and the entire ocean floor."

As more data pour in from this mission, Gregg and her colleagues will be continuing to analyze them, trying to learn more about how evidence of water on Mars may provide clues to questions about whether or not life has existed on the red planet.

Gregg's research is funded by the Planetary Geology and Geophysics Division of NASA.