18. May 2020
'Making a mess' in the name of research

Lava-like mud flows on Mars

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Space
A mud volcano on Mars?
A mud volcano on Mars?
Image 1/4, Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

A mud volcano on Mars?

Mud volcanism is suspected to have occurred in many places on Mars but its existence cannot be identified beyond doubt with currently available data. This image shows a crater cone built up of fine layers. The fracture patterns around the crater may indicate dried mud. Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out that this crater is the result of ‘conventional’ volcanism.
Active mud volcanoes on Earth
Active mud volcanoes on Earth
Image 2/4, Credit: CAS/Peter Brosž CC BY-SA 4.0

Active mud volcanoes on Earth

Mud volcanoes are not as well-known as ‘classic’ volcanoes, which bring lava – that is, molten rock – from Earth's interior to the surface, but they are common all over the world. Geologists have discovered approximately 1800 mud volcanoes on Earth, some of them at the bottom of the sea. Almost half of these mud volcanoes are located in Azerbaijan, near the Caspian Sea coast. There, the eruption process and the flow dynamics of the escaping mud flows can be studied in-situ. The small mud volcano in the image is only a few metres high, while others are several kilometres in diameter.
Mud volcanoes on Mars?
Mud volcanoes on Mars?
Image 3/4, Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Mud volcanoes on Mars?

For years there have been discussions about whether some volcanoes on Mars are not magma-fed, but mud volcanoes. On Earth, there are approximately 1800 of these volcanoes. Dozens of comparatively small hills with central craters have been discovered in the Martian region of Chryse Planitia, into which numerous wide, now dry channels terminate. These are distributed in this lowland plain (left of centre in this contrast-enhanced Mars Express HRSC false-colour image). The flat, almost pancake- or cowpat-like, bright areas on the right of the image may also have been formed by mud flows. Laboratory experiments, in which DLR Mars geologist Ernst Hauber was involved, support the theory that mud volcanism is also possible in the cold conditions found on Mars, with its thin atmosphere. However, the flow behaviour is completely different from that on Earth due to the much lower atmospheric pressure and temperatures.
Conditions on Mars simulated in a low-pressure chamber
Conditions on Mars simulated in a low-pressure chamber
Image 4/4, Credit: CAS/Peter Brosž CC BY-SA 4.0

Conditions on Mars simulated in a low-pressure chamber

The atmospheric pressure on Mars is approximately 150 times lower that that found at sea level on Earth, and temperatures are much lower most of the time and in most regions. In the subpolar lowlands, they often drop to minus 100 degrees Celsius at night. Under these pressure and temperature conditions, how does water-saturated mud flow over the surface of Mars? A group of European scientists has attempted to close this knowledge gap and poured water-rich mud onto a cold sand surface in a low-pressure chamber (in the image – one of the scientists involved in the study, Ondřej Krýza from the Czech Academy of Sciences) at the Open University in Milton Keynes (UK) and observed the flow behaviour (see video). In particular, the low atmospheric pressure on Mars changes the flow behaviour drastically compared to what occurs on Earth – it resembles thin, low-viscous basaltic lava.
  • Laboratory experiments show that at very low temperatures and under very low atmospheric pressure, mud behaves similar to flowing lava on Earth.
  • Results suggest that tens of thousands of conical hills on Mars, often with a small crater at their summit, could be the result of mud volcanism.
  • Focus: Space, exploration

Scientists have long suspected that the 'fire-breathing' volcanoes that spread large quantities of flowing lava over Mars were not the only kind. The numerous mountain cones in the northern hemisphere of the Red Planet may be the result of mud volcanoes. However, until now, researchers have lacked knowledge about the behaviour of water-rich mud on the surface of Mars. An unusual laboratory experiment involving the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) has now been able to show how mud flows at very low temperatures and under reduced atmospheric pressure. It behaves in a similar way to very specific lava flows on Earth. The results, which have now been published in the journal Nature Geoscience, add important details to the existing knowledge of Mars and its history, which has been shaped by volcanic activity.

"We have long been aware that in the early history of Mars, several billion years ago, large amounts of water were released over a short period of time, eroding very large valleys in the landscape, which have long since dried up," explains Ernst Hauber of the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof, who was involved in the study. "Extensively eroded masses of fragmented rock were transported through these outflow channels and into the northern lowlands of the planet, where they were quickly deposited. Later, these rocky masses were covered by younger sediments and volcanic rocks." Some Mars researchers had previously suspected that these underground, water-rich sediments could have become liquefied under certain circumstances and been pushed back up to the surface under pressure. In reference to the similar rise of magma, this process, which is well documented in many sedimentary basins on Earth, is referred to as sedimentary volcanism or mud volcanism.

Are small volcanic cones the result of mud extrusions?

Tens of thousands of conical hills populate the northern highlands of Mars, often with a small crater at their summit. These may be the result of mud volcanism. However, the evidence for this is not easy to acquire. This is due to the fact that little is known about the behaviour of low-viscosity mud under the environmental conditions on the Martian surface. To fill this knowledge gap, a group of European scientists carried out a series of experiments in a cylindrical low-pressure vessel 90 centimetres in diameter and 1.8 metres long, in which water-rich mud was poured over a cold sandy surface. Apart from the gravity on Mars, which could not be simulated, this experimental setup was somewhat reminiscent of building a large sandcastle under Mars-like conditions.

How does watery-mud move on Mars? Like pahoehoe lava!
Exploration of Mars has revealed the presence of large outflow channels which have been interpreted as the products of catastrophic flood events during which a large quantity of water was released from the subsurface. The rapid burial of water-rich sediments following such flooding may have promoted an ideal setting to trigger sedimentary volcanism, in which mixtures of rock fragments and water erupt to the surface in the form of mud.
Credit: Geofyzikální ústav AV ČR v. v. i.

The aim of these unusual experiments was to find out how the changed physical parameters influence the water component of the mud and thus alter its flow behaviour. The results came as a surprise. "Under the low atmospheric pressure of Mars, the mud flows behave in much the same way as 'pāhoehoe', or 'ropy', lava, which is familiar from large volcanoes on Hawaii and Iceland," says the lead author of the study, Petr Brož of the Czech Academy of Sciences. These findings were somewhat unexpected, as comparable geological processes on other bodies in the Solar System are thought to occur in a similar way to conventional volcanic processes on Earth. "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."

Did water-rich sediments also reach the Martian surface?
Did water-rich sediments also reach the Martian surface?
Water that flowed over the surface of Mars billions of years ago transported large quantities of sediments to the northern lowlands, where they were later covered by younger sediments and volcanic rocks. Some Mars researchers suspect that these water-rich sediments became liquefied underground and rose back to the surface under pressure – similar to this hot ‘mud spring’ at Bakhar in Azerbaijan (diameter approximately 1.5 metres). Experiments in a low-pressure chamber, in which DLR scientist Ernst Hauber was involved, have now shown that the flow behaviour is similar to that of what is referred to as ‘ropy lava’ (or, according to the Hawaiian term for smooth, unbroken lava, also known as ‘ pāhoehoe’ lava), which is at a temperature of several hundred degrees Celsius. This implies that mud flows on Mars take a completely different course than those on Earth. This observation could support the assumption that many of the conical hills with central craters discovered in the north of Mars are also mud volcanoes.
Credit: CAS/Peter Brosž CC BY-SA 4.0

Major impact of low atmospheric pressure

The key reason for the flow behaviour of the mud is the very thin atmosphere of Mars. The pressure is 150 times lower than the pressure at sea level on Earth. This difference has a major impact. Under such conditions, liquid water on the Martian surface is not stable and begins to boil and evaporate. This process absorbs latent heat in the vapor and cools the remaining mud, which then freezes at its surface, forming a crust. 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. “Of course, we already know that liquid water begins to boil sooner under low pressure – that is why, for example, it takes longer to cook pasta on a camping stove on high mountains on Earth," explains Hauber. "However, the impact of this familiar effect on mud has never been investigated in an experiment before. Once again, it turns out that different physical conditions must always be taken into account when looking at apparently simple surface features on other planets. We now know that we need to consider both mud and lava when analysing certain flow phenomena," adds Hauber.

The team of researchers were able to show in detail that the mud flows in the experiment behaved like pāhoehoe lava, with liquid mud spilling from ruptures in the frozen crust, and then refreezing to form a new flow lobe. When mud escapes onto the Martian surface, it is able to flow for some time before it solidifies due to the low temperatures. However, the morphology – the shape of the mud flows – is different from those found on Earth. The research work that is currently 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.

Contact
  • Falk Dambowsky
    Editor
    German Aerospace Center (DLR)
    Media Relations
    Telephone: +49 2203 601-3959
    Fax: +49 2203 601-3249
    Linder Höhe
    51147 Cologne
    Contact
  • Ernst Hauber
    German Aerospace Center (DLR)
    Institute of Planetary Research
    Telephone: +49 30 67055-325
    Fax: +49 30 67055-402
    Rutherfordstraße 2
    12489 Berlin
    Contact
  • Mgr. Petr Brož
    Czech Academy of Sciences
    Institute of Geophysics
    Telephone: +420 267 103-063
    Boční II 1401
    141 31 Prag
    Contact
  • Ulrich Köhler
    Public relations coordinator
    German Aerospace Center (DLR)
    Institute of Planetary Research
    Telephone: +49 30 67055-215
    Fax: +49 30 67055-402
    Rutherfordstraße 2
    12489 Berlin
    Contact

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