Washington, Feb 11 (ANI): A new study has suggested that Olympus Mons, the biggest volcano on Mars, could shelter some sort of life form.
Rising three times higher than Mount Everest, Olympus Mons was active at least 40 million years ago, and perhaps more recently.
Magma may still be close enough to the surface to support heat-loving bacteria like those found near hydrothermal vents on Earth.
But, bacteria likely need water to live in, too.
Now, according to a report in Discovery News, Patrick McGovern and Julia Morgan think they may have found it, locked in thick layers of clay-rich sediments beneath the mountain.
Spreading out over an area about the size of Arizona, Olympus Mons' massive lava flows are bunched up in the southeast, and stretched out in the northwest.
In a detailed computer simulation of the volcano, the researchers found the volcano would only assume its oblong shape if the erupted lava piled on top of layers of weak, water-laden sediments.
Scientists aren't certain how old Olympus Mons is, but it's likely that its first eruptions were billions of years ago.
If so, it could have formed in a time when Mars was much warmer and wetter, and trapped a large reservoir beneath it.
Whether or not that reservoir is still warm - and whether is contains life - remains a tantalizing uncertainty. No heat signatures have yet been detected from satellites orbiting the planet, but their instruments can't penetrate into the subsurface.
"If we were to go there and shove a probe a meter below the surface, you'd get a very different picture of heat flow," said Brian Hynek of the University of Colorado at Boulder, suggesting the mountain is probably still warm.
Though the blackest depths of a volcano might not seem like the best place to go alien-hunting, life on Earth has been found subsisting two miles down in the crust, and a mile beneath the ocean floor.
"So finding life a mile or so below Olympus Mons' lava flows is well within the realm of possibility," Hynek said.
The flows may even act as a kind of insulating blanket, keeping water and heat in, and Mars' cold, corrosive surface conditions out.
"It's the natural place I'd go first on an astrobiological expedition to Mars, given that it's the place where volcanism is strongest and youngest on the planet," McGovern said. (ANI)