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Geology Of Mars

Geological Features Of Mars

Eric Renderking Fisk | December 2014Bookmark and Share

Martian InteriorWhat is the composition of Mars?

The crust and surface of mars is mostly Irion rich basaltic rock and mirrors that of the Earth’s own crust. It’s believed that the basalt was created through now extinct volcanos. We believe that all the terrestrial planets in the solar system between the sun and the asteroid belt are essentially made of the same material with slight variations.

Beneath the surface is a mantle that’s dense with silicates, and the core of mars is comprised of iron and suffer.

NASA next mission, “InSight” - (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport) is – slated to launch in 2016 to find definitive answers to this specific question. Here’s an excerpt from the press release from Princton University’s Department of Geosciences…

InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy, and Heat Transport) will place a lander on Mars with an array of instruments including 1) a seismometer, 2)  a heat probe to measure thermal properties in a hole hammered five meters into the Martian surface, 3) equipment to track Mars’ “wobble” by measuring the Doppler shift and ranging of radio communications between the lander and Earth, and 4) cameras to guide the deployment of the instruments and provide views of the surrounding terrain.

The instruments are designed to operate for two (Earth) years; the data collected will enable scientists to understand much about the internal structure and history of Mars, as well as give clues to the processes that have shaped not only Mars but all of the terrestrial planets.  Critical questions include whether Mars has a liquid core, and why Mars does not have tectonic plates like Earth.

Is Mars geologically dead?

As stated above it is believed that the structure of Mars is similar to the planet Earth with various layers and a core with little to no activity. There are some observations that are inconsistent with this theory, though.

Many of our space probes and rovers, most specifically Mars Express, have been measuring a waxing and waning of trace methane in the atmosphere. There are two theories about this phenomenon and how or why that gas is consistently renewed.

If there is some minute volcanic activity this might explain the occasional release of methane. If the release of that gas is not produced by volcanic activity then the next possibility is primitive bacteria creating it as a waste product.

What are the unique geological features of Mars?

Speaking of volcanos, Mars is most notable in this field because it sports the largest one in our solar system – Olympus Mons.

Olympus Mons from Orbit

Olympus Mons has be benefit of once being a volcano that was created via a hot-spot that never moves because if plate tectonic inactivity. While the plates would move along here on Earth and create a chain of islands like Hawaii, the hotspot doesn’t move nor does anything move through it, the shield volcano on Mars was allowed to grow throughout most of the lifetime of geological activity on the planet.

Olympus Mons is the highest point in the Tharis Montes region which is also one of the highest mountain ranges in the solar system.

From The NASA homepage…

The largest of the volcanoes in the Tharsis Montes region, as well as all known volcanoes in the solar system, is Olympus Mons. Olympus Mons is a shield volcano 624 km (374 mi) in diameter (approximately the same size as the state of Arizona), 25 km (16 mi) high, and is rimmed by a 6 km (4 mi) high scarp. A caldera 80 km (50 mi) wide is located at the summit of Olympus Mons. To compare, the largest volcano on Earth is Mauna Loa. Mauna Loa is a shield volcano 10 km (6.3 mi) high and 120 km (75 mi) across. The volume of Olympus Mons is about 100 times larger than that of Mauna Loa. In fact, the entire chain of Hawaiian islands (from Kauai to Hawaii) would fit inside Olympus Mons!

Mars also features the longest canyon in our solar system to date, Valles Marineris. It’s the widest and the deepest canyon, messuring 4000 km (2500 mi) long and reaches depths of up to 7 km.

Valles Marineris

According the Astrogeology section of the website, this is actually a system of canyons and was created via many different processes including the surface collapsing due to underground depressions, then part of the region being filled with lake deposits.

Then graben-forming faults cut across some of the older troughs thus widening existing troughs, breaching barriers between troughs, and forming additional ones. At that time the interior deposits were locally bent and tilted, and perhaps water, if still present, spilled out and flowed toward the outflow channels. Huge landslides fell into the voids created by the new grabens. Wind-drifted material, mostly dark in color, apparently still moves along the canyon floor and locally forms conspicuous dunes.

Valles Marineris is also the largest body of proof that we have that water might have flowed freely on Mars and may have also filled this region creating a sea.

The third most impressive geological feature on Mars is its own polar icecaps that mimic our own here on Earth. This has been a choice site for looking for other evidence of life sustaining elements on Mars, water.

Mars Polar Cap

Is there any evidence of magnetism on Mars that’s similar to Earth’s protective magnetosphere?

Because of the lack of motion within the core there is no global magnetic field that’s capable of shielding Mars from magnetic storms. Due to a lack of a comprehensive magnetosphere, Mars lost most of it’s atmosphere and warmth that’s needed to support advanced life as we know it here on earth.

Electro-Spectrograph of The Martian partial magnetosphere

In an article published in Astronomy Magazine, “Mars had strong early magnetism “ By Robert Burnham, he reports the findings that NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft found evidence that this planet had a strong magnetosphere early in it’s life. A quote from this article taken from jack Connerney of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center pronounces; “We now believe the entire crust of Mars was magnetized."

The article continues;

“Scientists think Mars had the ability to generate a strong magnetic field in its core during its first half-billion to 1 billion years. The Martian field flipped polarity (swapping magnetic north and south) just as Earth's magnetic field has done repeatedly. But perhaps because the -artian core cooled, its magnetic dynamo shut down within a billion years of the planet's birth.

Molten rocks that erupted while Mars' dynamo was working have preserved the magnetic field's polarity at the time of eruption. But magnetized rocks don't necessarily keep their magnetic field patterns forever, explains Connerney. "You can erase the magnetic record overnight by heating a rock to 600° Celsius [1,000° Fahrenheit] — or if you can take a few million years to do the job, you only have to heat it to 300° C [500° F]."”

Another strange phenomenon is reported via the Planetary Societies website via an article written by Emily Lakdawalla is the strange distribution of the -artian magnetism that’s distributed along the typography.

Stated simply, the dichotomy is: Mars' northern hemisphere is low (in elevation) and flat, while the southern hemisphere is high and rugged. That difference is easy to spot in the marvelous Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter map of Mars, one of the signal accomplishments of the Mars Global Surveyor mission…

… It's never been easy to understand why Mars' northern hemisphere has very little in the way of a detectable magnetic field, because evidence suggests that the dichotomy is a truly ancient feature, that should have formed before the dynamo shut down. So people have had to come up with explanations for how it got demagnetized after the dichotomy formed, and the explanations have always been ad hoc. Maybe the north lost its magnetism due to alteration of its minerals in the presence of water, or maybe there were difficult-to-detect impact features after the dynamo shut down that wiped out the north's magnetism.

In other words, whatever magnetism remains on Mars can be found in the southern hemisphere which might have been the result of an asteroid impact that may have deposited a magnetic remnant or could have triggered sudden magnetic activity. Another explanation of Northern Mars losing it’s magnetism was the ocean that existed there that encompassed that hemisphere.

What is the physical evidence of water on Mars?

Over the past couple of decades there has been evidence that great quantity of water flowing on Mars a long time ago. Here are a few examples...

Martian Outcropping

Martian Washout Again


Martian Washout

The entire program that’s not devoted towards Mars is about the search for life and the other elements necessary for life to exist. As the pictures have demonstrated here and on the other page, there was once plenty of water flowing on the face of Mars. One of the new questions we’re asking  now is… where did the water go? Where is the water now on Mars? Could all frozen the water be frozen in the poles? Could the water be locked way in -artian aquifers?

This is where we end, back at the beginning looking at the future of the next mission to Mars via the InSights mission in the hopes of finding where the water went and if we can use it again to bring some kind of life back to good use. Maybe it’ll be used to bring about life for new Martians… namely our future colonists who will someday have better answers to these questions than I do.



"Rocks on Mars - A Variety of Different Rock Types Have Been Found on Mars." : Basalt, Shale, Sandstone, Conglomerate., n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2014. <>.

"Mars Exploration: Olympus Mons." Mars Exploration: Multimedia. NASA / JPL, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2014. <>.

"Astrogeology Science Center." Valles Marineris. USGS Astrogeology Science Center, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2014. <>.

"Mars Polar Lander - Science Goals." Mars Polar Lander - Science Goals. NASA / JPL, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2014. <>.

Burnham, Robert. "Mars Had Strong Early Magnetism." N.p., 11 Oct. 2005. Web. 15 Dec. 2014. <>.

Lakdawalla, Lakdawalla. "Why Is Only Half of Mars Magnetized?" The Planetary Society Blog. N.p., 24 Oct. 2008. Web. 15 Dec. 2014. <>.


USRA Houston – Space Science and Technology: Igneous, Sedimentary, and Metamorphic Petrology on Mars

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