Image: Tractus Catena
ESA / DLR / FU Berlin (G. Neukum)
The Martian region known as Tractus Catena is shown here in a computer-generated perspective view. The image was created using data obtained from the High-Resolution Stereo Camera on the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft. The pits seen in the background show hints of layered bedrock in the upper walls of each depression.
By
Universe Today
updated 4/5/2012 11:48:27 PM ET 2012-04-06T03:48:27

Recent images from the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft reveal long rows of craterlike depressions lining the flanks of ancient Martian volcanoes in the planet’s vast Tharsis region. Rather than being the result of impact events, these "pit chains" were likely caused by underground lava flows — and could be prime places to look for life.

Like similar features found on Earth, lava tubes on Mars are the result of rivers of magma that carved channels beneath the surface. When these channels empty out, a hollow tube is left. If the roof of a particularly large tube is near the surface, the roof can eventually collapse, creating a surface depression — or in some cases, opening up to the surface entirely.

Even though volcanism on Mars isn’t currently active — the last eruptions probably took place at least a million years ago — the features left by volcanic activity are still very much present today and probably well-preserved beneath the Martian surface.

Shielded from harsh solar and cosmic radiation, the interior of such lava tubes could provide a safe haven for microbial life — especially if groundwater had found its way inside at some point.

Even though the surface of Mars can receive 250 times the radiation levels found on Earth, the layers of soil and rock surrounding the tubes can provide adequate protection for life, whether it be ancient Martian microbes or future explorers from Earth.

Of course, water and protection from radiation aren’t the only factors necessary for life. There also needs to be some source of heat. Fortunately, the pit chains imaged by Mars Express happen to be within one of the most volcano-laden areas of the Red Planet, a region called the Arcadia quadrangle. Within this area exist some of the largest volcanoes on Mars — and the Tractus Catena pits are located right in the middle of them.

If there ever was a heat source beneath the surface of Mars, there's a good chance it would have been here.

And if our own planet is any measure of such things, where there’s heat and water, there is often some form of life — however extreme the conditions may be.

"I’d like to see us land on a volcano," Tracy Gregg, a volcanologist with the University of Buffalo, told Universe Today back in 2004. "Right on the flanks. Often the best place to look for evidence of life on any planet is near volcanoes.

"That may sound counterintuitive, but think about Yellowstone National Park, which really is nothing but a huge volcano," Gregg elaborated. "Even when the weather in Wyoming is 20 below zero, all the geysers, which are fed by volcanic heat, are swarming with bacteria and all kinds of happy little things cruising around in the water. So, since we think that the necessary ingredients for life on Earth were water and heat, we are looking for the same things on Mars."

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Could there still be geothermal activity beneath the Martian surface?

"I strongly suspect there are still molten (or at least mushy) magma bodies beneath the huge Tharsis volcanoes," Gregg said. (Read the full article here.)

On Earth, lava tubes, caves and underground spaces of all kinds harbor life, often specialized forms that are found no place else. Could this be (or have once been) the case on Mars as well? Only future exploration will tell. Until then, places like Tractus Catena will remain on scientists’ short list of places to look.

Read more on the ESA website here.

Jason Major is a graphic designer living in Dallas, Texas. He writes about astronomy and space exploration here on Universe Today and also on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News and National Geographic News.

This report originally appeared on Universe Today as an article titled "Could There Be Life in Them Thar Pits?"

Copyright © 2013 Universe Today. Republished with permission.

Photos: The greatest hits from Mars

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  1. The face of Mars

    The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on the full disk of Mars, with a head-on view of a dark feature known as Syrtis Major. Hubble astronomers could make out features as small as 12 miles wide. (AURA / STSCI / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red, white and blue planet

    Two decades before Pathfinder, the Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface. This 1976 picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and a Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grand canyon

    This is a composite of Viking orbiter images that shows the Valles Marineris canyon system. The entire system measures more than 1,875 miles long and has an average depth of 5 miles. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Red rover

    A mosaic of eight pictures shows the Pathfinder probe's Sojourner rover just after it rolled off its ramp. At lower right you can see one of the airbags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing on July 4, 1997. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twin Peaks at their peak

    The Pathfinder probe focuses on Twin Peaks, two hills of modest height on the Martian horizon. Each peak rises about 100 feet above the surrounding rock-littered terrain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blue horizon

    A Martian sunset reverses the colors you'd expect on Earth: Most of the sky is colored by reddish dust hanging in the atmosphere, but the scattering of light creates a blue halo around the sun itself. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Two-faced Mars

    The image at left, captured by a Viking orbiter in the 1970s, sparked speculation that Martians had constructed a facelike monument peering into space. But the sharper image at right, sent back in 1998 by Mars Global Surveyor, spoiled the effect. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Put on a happy face

    The "Happy Face Crater" - officially named Galle Crater - puts a humorous spin on the "Face on Mars" controversy. This image was provided by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monster of a mountain

    Mars' highest mountain, an inactive volcano dubbed Olympus Mons, rises as high as three Everests and covers roughly the same area as the state of Arizona. Mars Global Surveyor took this wide-angle view. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pockmarked moon

    Mars Global Surveyor snapped this picture of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two potato-shaped moons. Phobos' average width is just 14 miles. The image highlights Phobos' 6-mile-wide Stickney Crater. () Back to slideshow navigation
  11. From Mars with love

    This valentine from Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor, is actually a pit formed by a collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. The pit spans 1.4 miles at its widest point. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sandy swirls

    An image taken by Mars Global Surveyor shows a section of the northern sand dunes on Mars' surface. The dunes, composed of dark sand grains, encircle the north polar cap. (JPL / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Curls of clouds

    Global Surveyor focuses on a storm system over Mars' north polar region. The north polar ice cap is the white feature at the top center of the frame. Clouds that appear white consist mainly of water ice. Clouds that appear orange or brown contain dust. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Swiss cheese

    Global Surveyor captured images of a frost pattern at Mars' south polar ice cap that looks like Swiss cheese. The south polar cap is the only region on the Red Planet to contain such formations. (NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Alien junkyard

    The Opportunity rover looks at its own heat shield, which was jettisoned during the spacecraft's descent back in January 2004, on Dec. 22, 2004. The main structure from the heat shield is at left, with additional debris and the scar left by the shield's impact to the right. The shadow of the rover's observation mast is visible in the foreground. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Devil on Mars

    This image shows a mini-whirlwind, also known as a dust devil, scooting across the plains inside Gusev Crater on Mars, as seen from the Spirit rover's hillside vantage point on April 18, 2005. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rub al Khali

    The tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover are visible in a panoramic picture of a desolate, sandy stretch of Martian terrain in Meridiani Planum, photographed in May 2005 and released by NASA on July 28. "Rub al Khali" (Arabic for "Empty Quarter") was chosen as the title of this panorama because that is the name of a similarly barren, desolate part of the Saudi Arabian desert on Earth. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Double moons

    Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, NASA's Spirit rover spent a night stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky. The large bright moon is Phobos; the smaller one to its left is Deimos. (NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mars in the round

    A 360-degree panorama shows a stretched-out view of NASA's Spirit rover and its surroundings on the summit of Husband Hill, within Mars' Gusev Crater. The imagery for the panorama was acquired in August, and the picture was released on Dec. 5. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fossil delta

    Scientifically, perhaps the most important result from use of the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has been the discovery in November 2003 of a fossil delta located in a crater northeast of Holden Crater. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Underneath the ice

    This view taken in January 2005 shows sharp detail of a scarp at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large trough cut by erosion into the Martian north polar cap and the layered material beneath the ice cap. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Celestial celebration

    Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cheer on Friday after hearing that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully made it into orbit around the Red Planet. (Phil McCarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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