Is There Life on Mars? Volcanic Mount Kilauea Might Hold the Answer

Scientists who can't afford to jet off to Mars are staying terrestrial and studying the next best thing: volcanic flow from Hawaii's Mount Kilauea.

The surface of Mars is mostly covered in basaltic rock. When lava cools rapidly, it becomes basaltic rock, similar to that on Mars. Biologists, volcanologists, astronauts and other scientists hoping to better understand the geology of the red planet have traveled to the Big Island of Hawaii, donned space suits and acted as extraterrestrial scientists, observing and taking measurements on the lava flow.

A USGS scientist walks away from the slow flow. As volcanic lava cools rapidly, it becomes basalt, and the surface of Mars is mostly covered in basaltic rock. USGS via Getty

Before the eruption of Mount Kilauea, geophysics students observing the island had noticed abnormalities, according to a UCLA press release. Now that the volcano is in the slow process of erupting, more students will fly to the island and study the eruption. Later they will compare the data they collected to draw conclusions about the volcano and possibly Mars. The NASA-funded project studying the eruption—and cluing us in as to whether there is life on Mars—is called Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains, or BASALT.

According to The New York Times, accessing the eruption of Kilauea is akin to accessing a "portal to Mars." Perhaps this "portal" can help us understand the possibility of life on Mars.

"The reason why there continue to be questions, and programs like ours that go out and try to answer the questions—Was Mars habitable? Is it currently habitable?—is that nobody really knows," the project's leader Darlene Lim told the Times. Kim is a geobiologist at the NASA Ames Research Center in the Silicon Valley.

Some of the chemicals on basaltic rock could provide energy for bacteria, meaning that the mineral could be integral in the formation of life. Scientists have even found bacteria more than 4,000 feet deep in volcanic rocks in Hawaii, indicating that some life-forms can and do live in seemingly inhospitable environments similar to that of Mars.