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Search for life on Mars has a new destination – a strange funnel shaped crater

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While NASA has been scouring the surface of Mars and drilling holes on the Red Planet to find evidence and traces of life, a new study suggests that there is a better spot on Mars that could help us find life if at all it is present on the barren planet.

Researchers at University of Texas have pointed out that a strange funnel shaped depression in a crater could be the spot to check out if we want to find life on Mars. Researchers are of the opinion that the strange depression in the crater could have formed by a volcano beneath a glacier and could have been a warm, chemical-rich environment well suited for microbial life.

The depression was found by researchers inside a crater perched on the rim of the Hellas basin on Mars and surrounded by ancient glacial deposits. Lead author of the study Joseph Levy who is a research associate at University of Texas Institute for Geophysics says that they were drawn to this particular site because of the possibility that it could house key ingredients for habitability — water, heat and nutrients.

The crater isn’t a newly discovered one as Levy has been studying it since 2009. The first time he noticed the site, he noticed what could be features similar to “ice cauldrons” on Earth. These formations are found in Iceland and Greenland made by volcanos erupting under an ice sheet. Another depression in the Galaxias Fossae region of Mars had a similar appearance.

Mars, hellas depression
CREDIT: Joseph Levy/NASA

However, it was in 2016 that Levy and team were able to thoroughly analyze the depressions using stereoscopic images to investigate whether the depressions were made by underground volcanic activity that melted away surface ice or by an impact from an asteroid. The team used pairs of high-resolution images to create digital elevation models of the depressions that enabled in-depth analysis of their shape and structure in 3-D.

The team was not only able to measure the shape and appearance, but also how much material was lost to form the depressions. The analysis revealed that both depressions shared an unusual funnel shape, with a broad perimeter that gradually narrowed with depth.

This raised questions to to whether it meant there was melting concentrated in the center that removed ice and allowed stuff to pour in from the sides. Or if it was an impact crater, did it start with a much smaller crater in the past, and by sublimating away ice, the size of the crater expanded.

After testing formation scenarios for the two depressions, researchers found that they probably formed in different ways. The debris spread around the Galaxias Fossae depression suggests that it was the result of an impact — but the known volcanic history of the area still doesn’t rule out volcanic origins. In contrast, the Hellas depression has many signs of volcanic origins. It lacks the surrounding debris of an impact and has a fracture pattern associated with concentrated removal of ice by melting or sublimation.

The interaction of lava and ice to form a depression would be an exciting find because it could create an environment with liquid water and chemical nutrients, both ingredients required for life on Earth.

The findings were published this month in Icarus, the International Journal of Solar System Studies.

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