Sunday, 8 April 2012

Extraterrestrial life in Martian lava tubes?

Extraterrestrial life could be hiding in recently discovered lava tubes on Mars.

Pit-chambers on Mars. (Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum))

Photos taken by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express spacecraft reveal rows of “pit-chains” lining the sides of volcanoes in the red planet’s Tharsis region. These pit-chains were likely caused by ancient volcanic activity. The ESA explains, “Lava streaming from a volcano solidifies on the surface, leaving a molten tube of lava running below. Once volcanic activity ceases, the tube empties, leaving behind a subterranean cavity.” Similar lava tubes were discovered last year on Earth’s moon by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Image of the lunar pit (Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

These pit-chambers could have also formed due to strains in the planet’s crust, or even as a result of groundwater leading to the collapse of surface rocks.

Scientists believe tubes like these could provide a safe environment for life. Jason Major of Universe Today explains, “Even though the surface of Mars can receive 250 times the radiation levels found on Earth, the layers of soil and rock surrounding the tubes can provide adequate protection for life, whether it be ancient Martian microbes or future explorers from Earth.”