Caves on Mars?

Stains indicate possible openings to cavities in the subsurface

New shots of the NASA's Mars Odyssey with mysterious patches that scientists believe could be openings to caves. © NASA / University of Northern Arizona
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It is possible that scientists have now for the first time received evidence of the existence of caves on the Red Planet. Because new images show spots that can be interpreted as openings to such caverns. If confirmed, this would also have great significance for the search for life on Mars.

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Researchers from the University of Northern Arizona analyzed photographic images of the thermal emission imaging system aboard the NASA's Mars Odyssey, which has been orbiting Mars since 2001. The scientists are part of a special US Geological Survey Cave Search Program that explores new exploration techniques to be used both on Earth and on Mars.

Stains as openings?

The now evaluated images showed seven football field-sized black spots near the Martian volcano Arsia Mons. The region is known for its geological activity, but according to the researchers, the patches are not, as first thought, impact craters because they lack lofty edges or traces of ejected matter.

"We rather believe that the seven black spots are 'skylights', areas where the surface has broken in and has opened openings to underground chambers, " explains Jut Wynne, project manager of the Mars Cave Search Program. "Evidence of a past life on Mars might have survived only in such caves. Such a discovery would be of unparalleled importance. "Display

Caves as a refuge for life?

According to the researchers, in such caves, for example, old ice may have been preserved, in which traces of past life are conserved. "If there is life on Mars, then there is a good chance of finding it in caves, " says Wynne. Caves are considered to be one of the possible refuges for life on Mars, as they provide protection against harmful cosmic rays and other hostile factors. "The Martian surface is an extremely harsh environment, so the importance of the caves lies in their protective nature, " adds Wynne's colleague Glen Cushing.

But even for a future manned exploration of the Red Planet, caves like the "Seven Sisters" could have an important meaning. Because they could serve the astronauts as habitats or the ice in them be used for water production. Further confirmation of the potential caves, the researchers hope now from images of the probe Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter: The high-resolution cameras of the probe could take a closer look at the seven sisters and also show whether the structures really open in larger chambers, explains NASA scientist Phil Christensen.

(Northern Arizona University, 03.04.2007 - NPO)