While humanity may have to a wait few more decades to set foot on Mars, researchers are already getting a glimpse of the Red Planet’s geology. A new meteorite study, published this week in the journal Science Advances, suggests that a Martian volcano may have erupted nonstop for over 2 billion years.
The clues lie in a peculiar Martian meteorite found in Algeria in 2012, reports Lindsay Dodgson for Business Insider UK. Weighing roughly 0.44 pounds, the meteorite was found among a group of 11 samples that all appear to have been ejected from the Red Planet at the same time. Based on analysis of the space rocks’ exposure to cosmic rays, researchers believe that they were knocked off of mars roughly 1.1 million years ago, reports Michael Irving for New Atlas. But unlike the other ten, which formed 500 million years ago, the meteorite from Northwest Africa is roughly 2.4 billion years old.
“Between Antarctica and other deserts we add more than 1,000 meteorites per year, but only a few of those are interesting,” Marc Caffee, physicist and astronomer at Purdue University and co-author of the paper, says in a press release. This find, however, astounded researchers.
“What this means is that for 2 billion years there’s been sort of a steady plume of magma in one location on the surface of Mars,” Caffee says in the release.
Such stable volcanism is unheard of on Earth. Our ever-shifting tectonic plates would staunch volcanic activity well before 2 billion years. But Mars tectonics are much more complicated. Though many believe the red planet doesn’t have churning tectonic activity, some research suggests that the Red Planet once looked a bit like Earth.
Mars can also support volcanoes of enormous size, such as Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system. As Danny Lewis wrote for Smithsonian.com last year, researchers found the volcano-covered region of Tharsis Bulge spewed more than a billion billion tons of molten lava, shifting the topmost layers of the planet.
Researchers can’t pinpoint where exactly on Mars the meteorite came from, whether it was Olympus Mons or another location, says Caffee. The new data collected, however, gives scientists a glimpse at the conditions on Red Planet. “These meteorites are allowing us to conduct geologic science on the surface of Mars,” Caffee says in the release. “And we haven’t even been there yet.