Mars, the red planet, has always fascinated scientists and astronomers. Its desolate and arid landscape has long been a subject of study, with researchers delving into its past to uncover the secrets it holds. Recent research has shed light on the mysterious history of the solar system’s largest volcano, Olympus Mons. This colossal shield volcano, some 25 kilometers high, is not only a geological wonder, but also a key to understanding Mars’ watery past.
A team of geologists led by Anthony Hildenbrand of the University of Paris-Saclay, France, conducted a comprehensive analysis that revealed striking similarities between Olympus Mons and active volcanic islands on Earth. These results added to the growing body of evidence that Mars was once a water-rich planet.
The researchers suggest that billions of years ago, when Mars was just emerging, Olympus Mons resembled volcanic islands like Stromboli or Savaii, but on a much larger scale. The top edge of the colossal volcano, which forms a concentric main escarpment about 6 kilometers high, is thought to have been formed by lava flowing into liquid water during the late Noachian to early Hesperian era.
To better understand the origin of Olympus Mons, experts studied three active volcanic islands on Earth – Pico Island in Portugal, Fogo Island in Canada and Hawaii Island in the United States. They found that there are sharp ledges along the coastlines of these islands, similar to those surrounding Olympus Mons. On Earth, such ledges are formed because of sharp contrasts in the viscosity of lava as it transitions from air to water.
This intriguing discovery leads researchers to speculate that Olympus Mons was once a volcanic island surrounded by vast bodies of liquid water. This theory not only provides insight into the geologic history of Mars, but also raises questions about the planet’s water cycle. The height of the ledge can serve as an indicator of the sea level of the long-vanished ocean, and the age of the lava flows, estimated at about 3.7-3 billion years, allows us to determine the time of the ocean’s existence.
The implications of this research go beyond mere geologic curiosity. Understanding Mars’ aqueous past is critical to unraveling the mysteries surrounding the possibility of life on the planet. The presence of liquid water opens up the possibility of habitability and the existence of ancient microbial life forms.
While Mars may appear dry and dusty today, evidence continues to emerge that paints a different picture of its past. Gale Crater, where NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity operates, was home to a huge lake billions of years ago. In Jezero Crater, currently being explored by the Perseverance rover on Mars, evidence of a dried up ancient delta has been found. These discoveries, combined with a new understanding of Olympus Mons, indicate that the planet was once teeming with water and potential life.
As we continue to explore Mars and uncover its secrets, it is becoming increasingly clear that our neighboring planet has a complex and fascinating history. From volcanoes to ancient lakes and rivers, Mars holds the key to unlocking the mysteries of our planet’s past and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.