Friday, 6 March 2009

Martian mountain could imply life

A study of the Martian volcano Olympus Mons has found that pockets of ancient water may still be trapped under the mountain.

Conducted by Rice University geophysicists Patrick McGovern and Julia Morgan, the study could help answer the question of whether the Red Planet ever had -- or still supports -- life.

Olympus Mons is about three times the height of Mount Everest and stands almost 15 miles high. It slopes gently for a distance of more than 150 miles from the foothills to the caldera.

The researchers modelled the formation of Olympus Mons with an algorithm known as particle dynamics simulation and determined that only the presence of ancient clay sediments could account for the volcano's asymmetric shape.

The presence of sediment indicates water was or is involved.

"What we were analyzing was the structure of Olympus Mons, why it's shaped the way it is," said McGovern, an adjunct assistant professor of Earth science and staff scientist at the NASA-affiliated Lunar and Planetary Institute.

"What we found has implications for life -- but implications are what go at the end of a paper," he noted.

Similar to volcanoes in Hawaii, Olympus is expected to have been able to grow to its size because of the clay's friction-reducing effect.

The researchers suspect that if they were able to stand on the northwest side of Olympus Mons and start digging, they'd eventually find clay sediment deposited there billions of years ago, before the mountain was even a molehill.

The researchers are interested in what may be trapped underneath the mountain, as there may still be fluids, and potentially life, embedded in the clay sediment.

"This deep reservoir, warmed by geothermal gradients and magmatic heat and protected from adverse surface conditions, would be a favored environment for the development and maintenance of thermophilic organisms," they wrote in a report that was published in February's issue of the journal Geology.

More information is available from Rice University's press release.

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