Scientists say the search for extraterrestrials should focus on this huge crater on the Red Planet where there is evidence of warmth and water
A MYSTERIOUS funnel-shaped crater on the surface of Mars could hold the ingredients for alien life, scientists say.
A study shows the Hellas depression — 1,400ft deep and four miles wide — was probably formed by a volcano under a glacier and could have been a warm, wet, nutrient-rich environment ideal for microbes to grow.
The depression is inside a huge crater perched on the rim of the Hellas basin region of Mars and surrounded by ancient glacial deposits.
Astronomers has been unsure whether it was originally created by a volcano or a meteor impact.
The new research suggests the Hellas depression and similar feature, the 2.5-mile wide Galaxias Fossae depression, should be the focus in the hunt for extraterrestrial life.
Joseph Levy, a research associate at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, said: «These landforms caught our eye because they’re weird looking.
«They’re concentrically fractured so they look like a bullseye. That can be a very diagnostic pattern you see in Earth materials.»
The Hellas depression first caught Levy’s attention in 2009, when he noticed crack-like features on pictures taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
He thought they looked similar to «ice cauldrons» on Earth, formations found in Iceland and Greenland when volcanos erupt under an ice sheet.
Ice cauldrons such as this one Vatnajökull in Iceland are formed by volcanic eruptions beneath a glacier
Ice cauldrons such as this one Vatnajökull in Iceland are formed by volcanic eruptions beneath a glacierCredit: Oddur Sigurðsson/Icelandic Meteorological Office
If that were the case, the heat from the volcano would melt the glacier and provide a source of liquid water for any lifeforms that may exist on the Red Planet.
Levy said: «We were drawn to this site because it looked like it could host some of the key ingredients for habitability—water, heat and nutrients.»
Analysis revealed both depressions shared an unusual funnel shape, with a broad perimeter that gradually narrowed with depth.
Levy said: «That surprised us and led to a lot of thinking about whether it meant there was melting concentrated in the centre that removed ice and allowed stuff to pour in from the sides.»
The Hellas depression is located inside a crater on the edge of the Hellas basin region of Mars
The Hellas depression is located inside a crater on the edge of the Hellas basin region of MarsCredit: NASA
The researchers concluded the Hellas depression had many signs of volcanic origins like «ice cauldrons» on Earth.
It has a fracture pattern associated with concentrated removal of ice by melting.
The spread of debris around the Galaxias Fossae depression suggests that it was originally created by a meteor impact, but volcanic activity and ice melts have since made it bigger.
Evidence of the interaction of lava and ice would be an exciting find, the researchers say, because it could create an environment with liquid water and chemical nutrients, both ingredients required for life on Earth.
Their findings were published this month in Icarus, the International Journal of Solar System Studies.
Gro Pedersen, a volcanologist at the University of Iceland who was not involved with the study, said: «These features do really resemble ice cauldrons known from Earth, and just from that perspective they should be of great interest.»