Strange feature on Mars is a good place to look for life, study says

A new study suggests a good place to look for evidence of past life on Mars: a funnel-shaped hole on the surface of the Red Planet in a place called Hellas. Researchers report that it may have been formed by volcanic activity under ancient ice, tens of millions of years ago, and might have been a friendly environment for life to form.

“I think the North Hellas depression could be a great place to look for evidence of past life,” Joseph Levy, the lead author on the new study and a research associate at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, told in an email. “If a meltwater lake really did form there, you’d have had all the ingredients needed for habitability—water, energy, chemical nutrients, and warm enough temperatures for organisms to survive and reproduce.”

He compared the deep hole to a “root cellar” on Mars that could have preserved any life that did form there.


Levy’s team focused on two different depressions on Mars, each of which appeared interesting, with concentric rings around them. They looked like a phenomenon on Earth called an “ice cauldron,” formed from volcanic activity beneath ice. While one of the locations they studied, a depression on Mars at Galaxias Fossae, appears to have been formed by an impact, the other one, at Hellas, likely came from “volcanic melting of ice,” the study says, making it the more interesting of the two. It was published earlier this month in the journal Icarus.

The prospect of finding signs of past life on Mars is a thrilling idea for scientists and nonscientists alike— the next rover that NASA sends to Mars, called Mars 2020, will focus on looking for clues of life, and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission has the same goal, using an orbiter to look for trace gases like methane.

But Levy said that because of the extreme terrain of the depressions at Hellas (which is just over about 1,378 feet deep) and Galaxias Fossae, Mars 2020 or a similar kind of vehicle isn’t going to be exploring it anytime soon.


“What makes these sites so interesting is that they’re deep holes in the ground,” he said. “ It will take humans or better robots to look in many of the nooks and crannies and flip over the rocks that are the best candidates for preserving signs of life from the martian past.”

He evoked an image reminiscent of the movie "The Martian": “If I were on the surface of Mars and had a rappelling kit and a space suit,” he wrote, “I’d head there [to Hellas] for sure!”

Phil Smith, a senior space analyst at The Tauri Group, said in an email to that he found the study “exciting” because “it means we are leveraging an ever growing dataset gathered about Mars to narrow in on the search for Martian life.”

Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger