(Photo: HiRISE Images)
Scientists have found evidence of relatively recent quakes on the surface of Mars by studying boulders that fell off cliffs, leaving tracks behind
Seismic shocks as strong as the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010 may have rocked Mars in recent history and could support the idea that life existed on the red planet, according to a new study.
The marsquake occurred near a large underground volcano called Elysium Mons. If the quake was driven by volcanic activity, then there could be enough heat to melt ice and provide liquid water and conditions that could support life, according to the study.
The Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets published the research Tuesday.
"The fact that Mars is geologically active means that it may offer geothermal power, subsurface liquid water, and extant life," Robert Zubrin, a rocket scientist not involved with the study told MSNBC.
Zubrin also presides over the Mars Society, a nonprofit organization with a mission to explore and settle the red planet.
Researchers examined over 1,000 dislodged boulders, some as large as 65 feet (20 meters) wide, and charted them along a fault on the Martian crust using high-resolution images from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the planet since 2006.
Avalanches could be responsible for the mass movement of these rocks, though researchers said it was unlikely.
A distinct pattern in the Martian boulders led researchers to conclude seismic activity caused the rock formation. The size and number of the boulders decreased over a span of 62 miles (100 kilometers) radiating from a central point on one of the faults on Mars.
This formation is consistent with what geologists see during earthquakes, the authors said.
The researchers concluded that the quake occurred sometime in the past few million years, fairly recent in geological time, since winds had not yet erased the boulders' trails.
The quake was estimated to be the equivalent of a magnitude 7 based on the ruptured crust's size, but would have felt a lot more violent.
"On Mars the same energy would be released, but the weaker gravity would mean the effect of shaking would be more severe," Gerald Roberts, a geologist at the University of London told MSNBC. "Things would be thrown in the air more easily."
Seismic activity has been observed on the moon as well. Astronauts placed seismometers on the moon between 1969 and 1972 in order to detect quakes. The instruments registered several moonquakes at a variety of different depths, some lasting for as long as 10 minutes. Earthquakes typically last less than 2 minutes.
Though the status of NASA's Mars program is currently in question due to budget constraints, they are considering a program that would put a lander on Mars to study its interior and further investigate this marsquake as soon as 2016.
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