Could Mars' "ice cauldrons" signal early life on the Red Planet?

Could Mars' "ice cauldrons" signal early life on the Red Planet?
Source: AP
Source: AP

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin may have put us one step closer to discovering life on Mars. Unusual depressions on the planet similar to "ice cauldrons" on Earth, scientists say, could contain key ingredients for microbial life.

In a new study published in Icarus, an international journal of solar system studies, the Texas researchers detail their discovery of the depressions, which were found on Mars' Hellas basin and Galaxias Fossae region. The scientists noticed the depressions have similar "crack-like" features to "ice cauldron" formations found in Iceland and Greenland, which are made by volcanic eruptions that take place under an ice sheet, as summarized in the statement. The combination of lava and ice in these depressions would be significant, because it may mean that an environment could be created with liquid water and chemical nutrients that are essential for life on Earth.

Depression found in the Hellas basin region on Mars, which may be an important component in the search for Martian life.
Source: Joseph Levy/NASA

"We were drawn to this site because it looked like it could host some of the key ingredients for habitability — water, heat and nutrients," lead author Joseph Levy, a research associate at the University's Institute of Geophysics, said in a statement. "These landforms caught our eye because they're weird looking. They're concentrically fractured so they look like a bulls-eye. That can be a very diagnostic pattern you see in Earth materials."

Researchers say more work remains to determine if these are truly ice cauldrons, as the depressions could have been also formed by an impact. The known volcanic activity in the region is a positive sign, however, and the depression in the Hellas basin lacks any surrounding debris an impact would leave behind.

Ice cauldron formation in Iceland's Vatnajökull ice cap
Source: Oddur Sigurðsson/Icelandic Meteorological Office

University of Iceland volcanologist Gro Pedersen, who had no involvement in the study, commented: "These features do really resemble ice cauldrons known from Earth, and just from that perspective they should be of great interest. Both because their existence may provide information on the properties of subsurface material — the potential existence of ice — and because of the potential for revealing ice-volcano interactions."

The news of the possible ice cauldrons follows several other discoveries suggesting there could be liquid water — and thus potential for life — on Mars. In 2015, NASA's Curiosity rover discovered an area that had a very high concentration of silica, which, on Earth, would be typically due to water flowing through bedrock and leaving behind quartz (silicon dioxide). Manganese has also been found in large amounts in rocks on Mars, which scientists believe may be the result of Martian basalt being dissolved in oxygenated water and could prove that Mars' atmosphere was once full of oxygen. Researchers in 2015 also discovered that red streaks seen on slopes on Mars' surface may be from intermittently flowing liquid water.

NASA researchers in 2015 believe that water may intermittently flow on these slopes on Mars.
Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona via Getty Images

What these ice cauldrons contain and what their effect could be remains to be seen, of course, with the Texas researchers' discovery being just the first step in an exploration for signs of Martian life. 

But for those looking to make a drastic move once President Trump gains control of the nuclear codes, this news could be an encouraging sign.