Weird structures on Mars may be created by mud volcanoes

Mars Once Had a lot more Water than Scientists Thought

Carved out tunnels and mounds of debris on the Red Planet are similar to pahoehoes - lava flows - found in the likes of Hawaii and Iceland.

"We suggest that mud volcanism can explain the formation of some lava-like flow morphologies on Mars, and that similar processes may apply to eruptions of mud on icy bodies in the outer solar system, like on Ceres", says Petr Brož, lead author of the study.

This phenomenon is called sedimentary volcanism - basically, mud volcanoes.

Some curious formations on Mars were believed to be lava flows.

The team used chambers that simulated conditions at the surface of Mars, including extremely cold temperatures of -20 °C (-4 °F) and low pressure. Apart from the gravity on Mars, which couldn't be simulated, this experimental setup was considerably harking back to constructing a big sandcastle below Mars-like circumstances. The study found that contrary to the belief that these structures or tubes formed by lava a long time ago, it may have been formed by mud that acts differently on Mars compared to Earth.

"This reminds us that Mars is as complicated and diverse as the Earth in terms of the processes going on in its interior". And the research has important implications for other kinds of volcanism in the Solar System, such as the ice volcanoes thought to exist on far objects such as Titan and Pluto.

Pahoehoe lava in the Galapagos
Pahoehoe lava in the Galapagos

"Our experiments show that even a process as apparently simple as the flow of mud - something that many of us have experienced for ourselves since we were children - would be very different on Mars", Broz adds. This observation could support the assumption that numerous conical hills with central craters discovered in the north of Mars are also mud volcanoes. "So the skin will stop the flow for a bit, but then the momentum from the fluid inside breaks through at weak points in the skin, and the flow propagates forward".

According to the researchers, this is because the atmosphere in Mars is very thin, about 150 times thinner than Earth's, and its atmospheric pressure is less than 1% of the sea level pressure on Earth. This difference has a major impact. This cools the mud, and a crust freezes on its surface. The team demonstrates the mud experiments in the video below. This is because water is not stable and begins to boil and evaporate.

In a phase transition, such as during a freezing or thawing process, latent heat is released or absorbed by a material without changing its temperature.

Like pahoehoe lava, mud flows in Martian-like conditions solidified in the form of smooth undulating surfaces as liquid ruptured the frozen crust, then refroze. The shape of these landforms makes them look a lot like cooled lava which oozed out of the surface long ago, but an worldwide team of researchers now has a different explanation, and it might be even more interesting than flowing lava. When mud escapes onto the Martian floor, it is ready to move for a while earlier than it solidifies because of the low temperatures. The research work that is now being carried out is important for investigations of other planetary bodies, because similar processes may also play a role in cryovolcanic eruptions, in which liquid water comes to the surface, instead of magma or mud, such as on icy moons in the outer Solar System.

Once the desired environmental settings were implemented, researchers poured mud into the chamber and found that free-flowing mud underwent a rapid freezing, ultimately forming an icy crust.


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