Skip to main content
Move the World.
volcanoes on mars

Lead Image Courtesy of NASA / JPL / MSSS / The Murray Lab, Andrew Brumagen

New evidence has emerged that volcanoes on Mars may have erupted as recently as 50,000 years ago — and not 3 million years ago, as previously thought.

Volcanic deposits: During a volcanic eruption, hot, liquid magma escapes through cracks or holes in the surface, becoming lava. It then flows over the surface, solidifying into rock as it cools.

All the cooled lava, ash, and other material left behind on the surface after an eruption is called the volcanic deposit.

The discovery: While looking at satellite images of Mars, researchers at the University of Arizona and the Planetary Science Institute spotted what appears to be a previously unknown volcanic deposit surrounding a 20-mile-long crack in the planet's surface.

To estimate the age of the volcanic deposit, the researchers counted the craters on it. This is a common technique for estimating the age of the surface — the more impact craters, the longer the surface has been exposed.

From those counts, they estimated that the volcanic eruption may have taken place in the past 50,000 years.

"This may be the youngest volcanic deposit yet documented on Mars," lead study author David Horvath said in a press release. "If we were to compress Mars' geologic history into a single day, this would have occurred in the very last second."

Why it matters: Volcanic activity probably played a key role in the evolution of life on Earth. If volcanoes on Mars were erupting just 50,000 years ago, it raises the possibility that the planet may still have harbored enough geologic heat near the surface to support life.

"The interaction of ascending magma and the icy substrate of this region could have provided favorable conditions for microbial life fairly recently and raises the possibility of extant life in this region," Horvath speculated.

"I think we can rest assured that it won't be the last volcanic eruption on Mars."

Jeff Andrews-Hanna

It is possible that what the researchers believe is a volcanic deposit is actually dust and sand that the Martian wind blew out of the crack. However, they don't think that's likely, based on how the wind blows on the Red Planet and the placement of the material around the opening.

More to come: The new volcanic deposit is located in the Cerberus Fossae region of Mars, which is believed to be the site of the most recent water floods on Mars (those occurred about 20 million years ago).

It's also the same part of the planet where NASA recently detected two Marsquakes, suggesting that the region might still be geologically active.

"This may be the most recent volcanic eruption on Mars," study co-author Jeff Andrews-Hanna said, "but I think we can rest assured that it won't be the last."

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

Aerospace
Meet NASA's Autonomous Vehicle — For Mars
nasa's autonomous vehicle
Aerospace
Meet NASA's Autonomous Vehicle — For Mars
When Perseverance lands on Mars, it will hopefully drive further faster than any rover before. NASA’s autonomous vehicle’s secret? A dedicated “pilot.”

When Perseverance lands on Mars, it will hopefully drive further faster than any rover before. NASA’s autonomous vehicle’s secret? A dedicated “pilot.”

Outer Space
Scientists Measure Mars' Core — and It Is Shockingly Big!
mars core
Outer Space
Scientists Measure Mars' Core — and It Is Shockingly Big!
For the first time, scientists have measured Mars’ core — and found it is much bigger than expected.

For the first time, scientists have measured Mars’ core — and found it is much bigger than expected.

Mars
Icelandic Rocks Hold Clues to Mars’ Ancient Climate
Mars climate
Mars
Icelandic Rocks Hold Clues to Mars’ Ancient Climate
Water once flowed on Mars. But was ancient Mars’s climate hot and wet, or dry and glacial? Iceland may hold the answer.

Water once flowed on Mars. But was ancient Mars’s climate hot and wet, or dry and glacial? Iceland may hold the answer.

Biology
Did Life on Earth Travel Here From Mars?
panspermia
Biology
Did Life on Earth Travel Here From Mars?
Bacteria that survived on the outside of the ISS for three years suggests that panspermia is still a viable theory for the origin of life on Earth.

Bacteria that survived on the outside of the ISS for three years suggests that panspermia is still a viable theory for the origin of life on Earth.

Neurodiversity
Flickering Screens Help Kids With Reading Disabilities
reading disabilities
Neurodiversity
Flickering Screens Help Kids With Reading Disabilities
Adding visual white noise to computer screens appears to help children with reading disabilities read and recall words written on them.

Adding visual white noise to computer screens appears to help children with reading disabilities read and recall words written on them.

Medicine
New ALS Treatment Appears to Slow Disease Progression
ALS Treatment
Medicine
New ALS Treatment Appears to Slow Disease Progression
A new ALS treatment that appears to slow disease progression offers hope to those battling the incurable neurological disorder.

A new ALS treatment that appears to slow disease progression offers hope to those battling the incurable neurological disorder.

Genetics
Gene Writing: A New Type of Genetic Engineering
Gene Writing
Genetics
Gene Writing: A New Type of Genetic Engineering
Startup Tessera Therapeutics has developed gene writing, a new approach to genetic engineering that it says overcomes CRISPR’s shortcomings.

Startup Tessera Therapeutics has developed gene writing, a new approach to genetic engineering that it says overcomes CRISPR’s shortcomings.

Future of Medicine
Using Artificial Intelligence to Improve Breast Cancer Screening
Scientists Are Using AI to Improve Breast Cancer Screening
Future of Medicine
Using Artificial Intelligence to Improve Breast Cancer Screening
Computer scientists at MIT created a new algorithm for breast cancer screening to predict whether a patient will develop the disease in the next 5 years.

Computer scientists at MIT created a new algorithm for breast cancer screening to predict whether a patient will develop the disease in the next 5 years.

Coded
Meet the Digital Bodyguard for Investigative Journalists
Meet the Digital Bodyguard for Investigative Journalists
Coded
Meet the Digital Bodyguard for Investigative Journalists
Smári McCarthy discusses his job protecting the work of journalists investigating organized crime and corruption
By Mike Riggs

Smári McCarthy discusses his job protecting the work of journalists investigating organized crime and corruption