Mars glass dunes: Researchers excited about discovery, possibility of life

The possibility of life on Mars continues to excite scientists, this time because of glass sand discovered on the Red Planet.

Researchers say the newly discovered glass dune fields may lead to chemically rich water that would be ideal for supporting life on Mars. They say the dunes are spread across almost a third of the planet, and were likely formed because of interactions between magma and ice or water.

The researchers say such interactions could create the perfect environments for microbial life.

“The only way to create an extensive glassy deposit like that is through explosive volcanism,” Briony Horgan, a scientist at Arizona State University involved in the research, told Astrobiology Magazine . “This is the first direct evidence on Mars for explosive volcanism on a planetary scale.”

The finding came from research into possible interactions of lava flows and floods of water in the Elysium volcanic province of Mars, according to a news release from ASU.

Horgan and James Bell re-examined light radiating from the Martian plains, using the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter.

The researchers say they were surprised by the size of the Martian lava coils.

“On Mars the largest lava coil is 30 meters across – that’s 100 feet,” said graduate student Andrew Ryan. “That’s bigger than any known lava coils on Earth.”

“Lava coils may be present in other Martian volcanic provinces or in outflow channels mantled by volcanic features. I expect that we’ll find quite a few more in Elysium as the HiRISE image coverage grows over time,” Ryan said.

Discovery of the glassy expanse could lead to more promising environments, researchers say.

“We definitely know searching for organisms in the northern lowlands is difficult,” Horgan said. “I think the better place to go would be those source regions, the ice-magma interactions.”