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Giant volcano ‘hidden in plain sight’ discovered on Mars, scientists say

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Scientists say they have discovered a giant volcano hidden in plain sight on Mars.

The volcano, temporarily named the Noctis, spans 280 miles wide and was discovered alongside a buried ice glacier to the east of Mars, near the red-planet’s equator, scientists revealed at the 55th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference held in Texas on Wednesday.

Scientists said the 29,600-foot-high volcano was active from ancient through recent times and with possible remnants of glacier ice near its base. They say its discovery points to an exciting new place to search for life and a potential destination for future robotic and human exploration. The findings were detailed in a new study by the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute based at NASA Ames Research Centre.

Scientists have discovered a gigantic volcano on Mars that spans 280 miles wide and and nearly 30,000 feet high near the red-planet’s equator, (NASA/USGS Mars globe. Geologic interpretation and annotations by Pascal Lee and Sourabh Shubham, 2024.)

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The study was a joint effort between the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute based at NASA Ames Research Centre.

“We were examining the geology of an area where we had found the remains of a glacier last year when we realized we were inside a huge and deeply eroded volcano,” said Dr. Pascal Lee, planetary scientist with the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute based at NASA Ames Research Center, and the lead author of the study.

The site had been imaged repeatedly by orbiting spacecraft around Mars since Mariner 9 in 1971, scientists said, but the volcano had been deeply eroded beyond easy recognition and was “hiding in plain sight” for decades in one of Mars’ most iconic regions, at the boundary between the heavily fractured maze-like Noctis Labyrinthus (Labyrinth of the Night) and the monumental canyons of Valles Marineris (Valleys of Mariner).

In its southeastern part lies a thin, recent volcanic deposit beneath which glacier ice is likely still present.

However, according to the scientists, the jumble of layered mesas and canyons in this eastern part of Noctis Labyrinthus revealed its volcanic nature.

The central summit area is marked by several elevated mesas forming an arc, reaching a regional high and sloping downhill away from the summit area. 

The gentle outer slopes extend out 140 miles away in different directions. 

A map of Mars showing where a new volcano has been discovered

 Topographic map showing the iconic location of the Noctis volcano between the largest volcanic and canyon provinces on Mars. (NASA Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) digital elevation model. Geologic interpretation and annotations by Pascal Lee and Sourabh Shubham, 2024.)

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A caldera remnant, the remains of a collapsed volcanic crater once host to a lava lake, can be seen near the center of the structure. Lava flows, hydrated mineral deposits as well as pyroclastic deposits made of volcanic particulate materials such as ash, cinders, pumice and tephra, occur in several areas within the structure’s perimeter.

“This area of Mars is known to have a wide variety of hydrated minerals spanning a long stretch of Martian history,” said Sourabh Shubham, a graduate student at the University of Maryland’s Department of Geology and the study’s co-author.

“A volcanic setting for these minerals had long been suspected so, it may not be too surprising to find a volcano here. In some sense, this large volcano is a long-sought ‘smoking gun.’”

The scientist said that the volcano has experienced eruptions in modern times but it is unknown if it is still active and might erupt again.

In addition to the volcano, the study reports the discovery of a large 1,930 square mile area of volcanic deposits within the volcano’s perimeter presenting a large number of low, rounded and elongated, blister-like mounds. 

A topographic map of the Noctis volcano.

Topographic map of the Noctis volcano. (NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) Context Camera (CTX) mosaic and Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) digital elevation model. Geologic interpretation & annotations by Pascal Lee & Sourabh Shubham, 2024.)

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This “blistered terrain” is interpreted to be a field of “rootless cones,” mounds produced by explosive steam venting or steam swelling when a thin blanket of hot volcanic materials comes to rest on top of a water or ice-rich surface.

Meanwhile, Lee added that a combination of factors makes the Noctis volcano site “exceptionally exciting.”

“It’s an ancient and long-lived volcano so deeply eroded that you could hike, drive, or fly through it to examine, sample, and date different parts of its interior to study Mars’ evolution through time.”

“It has also had a long history of heat interacting with water and ice, which makes it a prime location for astrobiology and our search for signs of life.” 

Scientists say that the volcano sits on the eastern edge of a broad regional topographic rise called Tharsis, home to three other well-known giant volcanoes: Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Arsia Mons.

According to NASA, Mars is 140 million miles from Earth.



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