A University of Maryland doctoral student studying geology helped discover a possible volcano on Mars that could serve as a future exploration site and advance the search for extraterrestrial life on the planet.

Sourabh Shubham collaborated with Pascal Lee — the lead author of the study and a planetary scientist with the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute based at NASA Ames Research Center — to make the discovery in December. They presented their findings about the volcano, which is taller than Mount Everest, last month at the 55th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

“It was right in front of us but we never recognized it before,” Shubham said. “We were lucky to find it before anybody else.”

The two have been working together since 2018 and were initially examining the Noctis Labyrinthus region of Mars — where the volcano is located — to assess its candidacy as a site for human exploration.

The team analyzed images and data from various sources such as the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, according to their study.

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Last year, Shubham and Lee found what they believed to be remains of a glacier blanketed in salt deposits. They noticed volcanic ash surrounding the area, which led them to find the volcano. The ash from the volcano’s past eruptions mixed with the glacier and chemically formed the salt deposits, according to Lee.

The volcano was eroded beyond recognition, according to Lee, which is why it was not discovered earlier. Researchers are unsure if the volcano is capable of erupting again, he added.

Scientists already knew there were volcanoes on Mars, according to Rod Pyle, a space historian and author of several space exploration books. But this finding is especially important because water from the glacier and the possible thermal activity below the volcano mean there might have been or may currently be microbial life on Mars, he said.

“This is a once in a generation kind of discovery,” Pyle said. “It’s just this amazing achievement that’s incredibly hard to do.”

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The researchers are working on their peer reviewed paper to further solidify their findings, but have garnered skepticism from other professionals so far, Lee said. Because of the possible volcano’s severe erosion, many scientists think it could be an impact crater instead.

Hannes Bernhardt, a visiting assistant research scientist in this university’s geology department, said being skeptical is a natural part of the scientific process. He thinks the presented evidence is “convincing,” he said, but does not think that Shubham and Lee’s discovery can be guaranteed at this time.

“I was pretty startled because it was right there in our face,” Bernhardt said. “We need a skeptical review and we need to really critically assess the findings and their observations.”

Despite the skeptics, the pair are certain they have discovered a volcano, they said.

Lee understands the hesitancy from the scientific community but also thinks those with doubts have not looked at the presented evidence carefully enough, he said.

“We are very confident of what we found and have reported,” Lee said.