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Report: Mars volcanoes possibly still active

Mars volcano
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Olympus Mons on Mars is the tallest known volcano in the solar system  

(CNN) -- Volcanoes on the red planet could have melted ice and produced water necessary for life. They also could still be active, planetary scientists said this week.

The volcanoes heated up ground ice on Mars and caused the melted water to flow downhill, which carved channels that today appear in satellite images as dry riverbeds radiating away from the volcanic centers, the researchers theorized.

The University of Buffalo geologists studied Mars satellite images of two older volcanoes to produce their findings, which they presented at the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas.

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"What's most intriguing about these volcanoes is that they are surrounded by channels," said lead investigator Tracey Gregg. "Of all the volcanoes on Mars, these volcanoes have the largest and greatest numbers of channels associated with them, indicating that there was a lot of water around when they were forming."

Mars is too cold now to possess liquid water. But Gregg and other scientists have theorized that the planet was once warm enough to have great quantities of the substance, providing what could have been suitable conditions for life.

"The combination of the heat and energy from the volcanoes and the liquid water makes conditions ripe for the evolution of life, at least as we understand it on Earth," Gregg said.

Located in the southern hemisphere, the two volcanoes could have been active for the last 3.5 billion years and possibly still are, Gregg said. Named Tyrrhena Patera and Hadriaca Patera, the two resemble overturned saucers, thus their shared last name, a Latin word for "saucer."

The scientists based their findings on new high-resolution images from the Mars Global Surveyor, a NASA satellite that has orbited the red planet since September 1997.

Other researchers attending the NASA-sponsored conference welcomed the study as more historical evidence of a wet, warm Mars.

"It's principally a study of volcanism, but this report does indicate that water has been an important factor in shaping Mars' surface and the chemistry of its rocks," said Jeff Cargill, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist who studies the solar system.

"This has taken place through much of Mars' history and almost surely has continued into the recent era."

Some scientists have suggested that substances other than water, such as exotic forms of carbon dioxide, could have shaped many of the younger features on surface of Mars.



RELATED STORIES:
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NASA unveils new Mars exploration plan
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Theory: Carbon dioxide, not water, formed Mars canyons
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Mars images reveal elegant polarity of ice caps
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RELATED SITES:
NASA Ames Research Center
The Mars Society
Mars Polar Lander
The Planetary Society

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