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Joseph Levy, a research associate at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, and his team have recently made some incredible discoveries about Mars that could provide proof that there is life on the red planet. “We were drawn to this site because it looked like it could host some of the key ingredients for habitability — water, heat and nutrients, ” Joseph Levy explained. The site they are most interested in is a strangely shaped depression that was probably formed by a volcano beneath a glacier. This is an exciting discovery because researchers now believe it could have been a warm, chemical-rich environment – exactly what is needed for lifeforms to evolve.

The site is inside a crater perched on the rim of the Hellas basin in an area surrounded by ancient glacial deposits. Levy first thought it might be significant in 2009 when he noticed it contained crack-like features in several photographs. He realized that they resembled so called “ice cauldrons” on Earth, which are often found in Iceland and Greenland. These ice cauldrons occur when a volcano erupts underneath an ice sheet. Photos also reveal another depression in the Galaxias Fossae region of Mars had a similar appearance. “These landforms caught our eye because they’re weird looking. They’re concentrically fractured, so they look like a bulls-eye. That can be a very diagnostic pattern you see in Earth materials, ” said Levy, who first observed the photos when he was a postdoctoral researcher at Portland State University.”The big contribution of the study was that we were able to measure not just their shape and appearance, but also how much material was lost to form the depressions. That 3-D view lets us test this idea of volcanic or impact, ” Levy said.

”That surprised us and led to a lot of thinking about whether it meant there was melting concentrated in the center that removed ice and allowed stuff to pour in from the sides. Or if you had an impact crater, did you start with a much smaller crater in the past, and by sublimating away ice, you’ve expanded the apparent size of the crater, ” Levy said. Here is an example of a similar ice cauldron on Earth: However, after running simulations of formation scenarios fro the two depressions, researchers concluded that they probably formed in different ways. The debris in the area around the Galaxias Fossae depression suggests that it was the result of an impact from an asteroid, although the volcanic history of the area means that volcanic origins should not be ruled out. In contrast, the Hellas depression shows a significant number of signs of volcanic origins. It lacks the surrounding debris that would be caused by an impact, and has a fracture pattern associated with concentrated removal of ice by melting or sublimation under the surface, which could only be cause by a great heat source.

Ice cauldrons have been formed on Earth before, as shown in this video: The reason this discovery is so interesting is that the interaction of lava and ice would have created an environment with liquid water and chemical nutrients, which are both required ingredients for life as it is known on Earth. Levy explained that the Hellas depression and, to a lesser extent, the Galaxias Fossae depression, should be places of special interest as scientists and amateurs alike continue to look for habitats, and life, on Mars. Gro Pedersen, a volcanologist at the University of Iceland who was not involved with the study, agreed that these sites are a major find and that they are likely to lead to more discoveries in the future.

“These features do really resemble ice cauldrons known from Earth, and just from that perspective they should be of great interest, ” Pedersen said. “Both because their existence may provide information on the properties of subsurface material — the potential existence of ice — and because of the potential for revealing ice-volcano interactions.” Hopefully, in the near future, the truth will come forth about what might be under all of that ice. It certainly seems that the possibility of life on Mars is quite real.