A group of global researchers analyzing Mars' composition recently found that the lava-like flows observed on the distant planet's surface are more than likely caused by mud, not molten rock.
The findings, reported in the journal Nature Geoscience, have been described as "unexpected" and "very exciting" by lead author Dr Petr Broz, from the Institute of Geophysics of the Czech Academy of Sciences. There are steep cones of tens of kilometers in height, and they seem to be spread across the northern hemisphere of Mars. European Space Agency to launch in 2022.
Using the Mars Chamber at the Open University, the scientists recreated the surface temperature and atmospheric pressure on Mars as part of a simulation of conditions on both Earth and Mars. Since the mud formations resemble a type of lava known as pahoehoe, which can be commonly seen at Hawaii's Kilauea volcano, it could be mistaken as molten rock on Mars due to its clumpy appearance and movement. For a month, they did an average of 10 hours a day in the lab, "playing with mud" to test what they could have done on Mars. Surprisingly, the mud didn't freeze immediately. The liquid mud would then pour from the cracks into the frozen crust, which would then refreeze. This is because water is not stable and begins to boil and evaporate. The shape of these landforms makes them look a lot like the chilled lava that emerged from the surface a long time ago, but an worldwide team of researchers now has a different explanation, and it could be even more interesting than fluid lava.
"We found that low viscosity mud under Martian conditions propagates differently from that on Earth, because of rapid freezing and the formation of an icy crust".
Brož did not expect the mud to move like lava on other planets and said that this "shook my world a little". This is similar to what happens with the volcanoes on Earth.
Conical features can be found in the same area where long and wide canals left their mark on the Martian surface, revealing where giant floods probably erupted from below the surface.
However, under terrestrial atmospheric pressure, the experimental mud flows did not form lava shapes, did not expand, and had no icy crust, even under very cold conditions. When the water seeps into the subsurface it can emerge again as mud. Life as we know it can not exist without liquid water.
Mud flowing from a mud volcano in Azerbaijan. Each of these cones has a small crater on top of them. Brož estimated that they could be between a few hundred million and 2 billion years old. "However, our experiments clearly show that in reality, this simple process which we all know from our childhood would be very different on Mars".
If the streams are attributed to magma, this means that a source of magma and heat must be present nearby below the surface.
According to scientists, sedimentary volcanism can occur on the dwarf planet Ceres, under the surface which is the ocean, containing large amounts of clay, ice, salts and clathrate compounds (molecules containing inclusions).
The same could be true of other frozen moons, such as the moon of Jupiter Europe, the moon of Saturn Enceladus or the moon Triton of Uranus.
In order to test this hypothesis, an global team of researchers simulated Mars-like conditions using the Mars Chamber at the Open University in the UK.