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Icy volcanoes offer clues for life on Mars

8 March 2013, by Alex Peel

Scientists investigating icy volcanoes on Earth have uncovered clues that could help us to find signs of life on Mars.

Glacio-volcano

Heat, water and minerals combine on ice-covered volcanoes to sustain tiny, basic forms of life. Scientists hope that, by creating detailed descriptions of the rocks and chemistry of these icy volcanos on Earth, they will be able to detect similar environments on the Red Planet.

'These environments are fascinating because they exist in such a primitive setting,' says Dr Claire Cousins of Birkbeck, University of London, the study's lead author.

'They are not affected by groundwater or seawater and this makes them very relevant to understanding the possibility of life on Mars; such simple volcanic environments may have existed there in the past.'

'Finding life on Mars, even past life, will really highlight our place in the cosmos, and show whether biology naturally occurs wherever the local environmental conditions allow.'
Dr Claire Cousins, Birkbeck

'But to find them on Mars, we need to understand how they look on Earth.'

Cousins and her team explored the Askja and Kverkfjoll volcanos in central Iceland, finding an incredibly diverse range of minerals over just a few square kilometres.

If they could find the same mineral patterns on the surface of Mars, it could point to life-supporting environments that existed there in the past.

Finding traces of those environments on Mars will be no easy task, but Cousins believes that new technology could hold the key to unlocking the secrets of Martian history.

'With orbital data we can get an idea of which minerals are present across large areas, but we are limited to those minerals at the very surface, which is often weathered and covered in Martian dust,' she says.

'But with rovers such as NASA Curiosity, or the upcoming European Space Agency mission, ExoMars, we can drill beneath the surface. Even a few centimetres can make a big difference.'

Cousins and her team will now focus on the biology of icy volcanos, in an effort to understand exactly how the tiny organisms that live there exploit their unlikely habitat, and whether they could also survive on Mars.

She believes that finding evidence of life on Mars can help us to understand not only the origins of biology, but also our place in the universe.

'We know so little about the origins of life on Earth, and absolutely nothing about the distribution of life elsewhere,' she says.

'Finding life on Mars, even past life, will really highlight our place in the cosmos, and show whether biology naturally occurs wherever the local environmental conditions allow.'

The study is published in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research and was supported by NERC equipment and facilities. Further funding came from the Leverhulme Trust.


Cousins CR, Crawford IA, Carrivick JL, Gunn M, Harris J, Kee TP, Karlsson M, Carmody L, Cockell C, Herschy B, Joy KH, Glaciovolcanic hydrothermal environments in Iceland and implications for their detection on Mars, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 2013, doi: 10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2013.02.009


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