Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Hot spots on Mars give hunt for life new target


Ice Tower on Mt Erebus, Antarctica

Giant hollow towers of ice formed by steaming volcanic vents on Ross Island, Antarctica are providing clues about where to hunt for life on Mars.

University of Melbourne geologist, Dr Nick Hoffman has found evidence from recent infra-red images of Mars that similar structures may exist on Mars and, if life is to be found, such towers may be best place to start looking.

Hoffman has drawn attention to strange temperature anomalies in these latest Mars images taken with an infra-red heat-sensing camera on the Mars Odyssey orbiter. These anomalies, he says, fit the signature you might expect from structures formed in similar ways to the Antarctica ice towers.

"If these thermal anomalies don’t prove to be another of Mars’ "red herrings", the search for water and life on Mars now has a clear focus. While I believe Mars is actually lifeless, ice towers rather than the current acclaimed river channels are the most likely place to find signs of water activity, and hence life, on an otherwise frozen planet," says Hoffman.

Hoffman and colleague, Professor Phil Kyle, Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, New Mexico, presented their research into the similarities between Antarctica and Mars at NASA´s recent 6th International Mars Conference in Pasadena, California.

Mt Erebus is a 3800 metre active volcano on Antarctica’s Ross Island. Here, steaming volcanic vents transform steam directly into ice, missing the normal in-between step of liquid water. Instead, all of the water is transported as vapour directly from snow and ice in the ground (permafrost) to build tall hollow chimneys of ice, that loom over the landscape up to 10m tall.

It is possible to climb down the inside the chimneys where the filtered sunlight creates an eerie blue dimness. In this cave-like grotto, away from the howling wind, there exists a local microclimate gently warmed by the volcanic heat beneath.

The internal temperatures of the towers hover around freezing, but are often tens of degrees warmer than the outside air. Delicate curtains of snowflakes and icicles hang from the roof. The floor is dry crunchy gravel, dried out by volcanic warmth, but occasionally a warm spell leads to drips melting from the roof.

"Earth Bacteria can thrive in this sheltered spot, despite the traces of volcanic gas," says Hoffman. "On Mars, similar structures would be doubly valuable for potential Mars microbes. The icy structure of the chimney would filter out harmful Ultra-Violet radiation, and provide warmth and shelter. Meanwhile, the volcanic gases could provide chemical energy for primitive forms of life like those that live in hot springs on earth," he says.

The strange temperature anomalies picked up by the orbiter are in an area of Hellas Basin, a massive impact basin about the size of Australia in the southern Hemisphere of Mars.

"Debate continues about the anomalies which might only be odd rock formations, but they are definitely 8 to 12 degrees warmer than the surrounding materials both day and night, so warmth from the sun cannot be responsible for their anomalous temperature," says Hoffman.

"Some special combination of sunshine, reflectivity, and cementation is required to explain these temperatures in any other way, and this combination, whilst possible, is unlikely," he says.

"We anticipate that such towers, if they exist on Mars, could grow up to 30 metres tall under the lower gravity. The geothermal hotspots over which a tower might exist are unlikely to produce liquid water, unless they are exceptionally active or newly formed where the extensive permafrost of Mars might melt for the first and only time. Instead the hotspot would drive the water vapour upwards forming a similar grotto-chimney type of ice tower as found on Mt Erebus.

Water on Mars

Until now, NASA scientists have thought deep gullies discovered in 2001 to be the most promising candidates for liquid water flows on modern Mars. Many NASA researchers have suggested ways in which they might be formed by liquid water.

"The problem is nobody has seen water flowing in the gullies," says Hoffman.
Rather than water, Hoffman’s recent research shows the gullies are more likely to be formed by avalanches of frozen carbon dioxide and other debris.

NASA is desperate to find signs of liquid water on Mars so they have a target for the next generation of Mars landers and rovers to go and search for life, but their search could prove fruitless if Hoffman’s research and analysis is correct. "The ice towers are the best bet for life, so far," he says.


Dr Nick Hoffman
School of Earth Sciences, Uni of Melbourne

Jason Major | The University of Melbourne
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Scientists discover particles similar to Majorana fermions
25.10.2016 | Chinese Academy of Sciences Headquarters

nachricht Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves
24.10.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Struktur und Dynamik der Materie

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere

25.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

Fluorescent holography: Upending the world of biological imaging

25.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Etching Microstructures with Lasers

25.10.2016 | Process Engineering

More VideoLinks >>>