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Researchers zone in on habitable environment on Mars

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Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Thursday, May 29, 2014, 3:25 - The slopes of a giant Martian volcano that was shroud in ice 210 million years ago may be one of the most habitable environments found on the red planet to date according Brown University geologists.

Arsia Mons is the third tallest volcano on Mars and, at nearly twice the size of Mount Everest, it's one of the largest mountains in our solar system.

A new study out of Brown University speculates that microbial life may have existed at the foot of this mountain -- and it could have been there for thousands of years.

Researchers believe that heat from volcanic lava and the presence of ice may have combined to create the hospitable conditions.

According to lead author Kat Scanlon, a doctoral student at Brown University, the icy lakes at Arsia Mons would have held hundreds of cubic kilometres of meltwater -- a precursor to life -- and that environment may have been sustained for centuries.

While 210 million years ago sounds ancient, it's not as old as the more than 2.5 billion year-old potential habitable zones that Mars rovers have turned up.


RELATED: NASA rover provides incredible view of Mars


"I was very excited," Scanlon told the Los Angeles Times of her discovery.

"It's all a really nice suite of land forms that together all point to the exact same process. So, that was really cool."

The theory that glacial ice once existed on Arsia Mons has been around since the 1970s and it has been re-visited time and again over the years. In fact, Scanlon's collaborator Jim Head believes that some of the glaciers may even still exist.

"Remnant craters and ridges strongly suggest that some of the glacial ice remains buried below rock and soil debris," he said in a statement.

"That's interesting from a scientific point of view because it likely preserves in tiny bubbles a record of the atmosphere of Mars hundreds of millions of years ago. But an existing ice deposit might also be an exploitable water source for future human exploration."

The complete study has been published in the journal Icarus.

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