Geology Tells The Story of Mars (Issue #5)

by: Nicole Willett

As Curiosity roves the dry riverbed on Mars, she wonders about the geological history of the Red Planet.  Of course Mars is a rocky planet that has silicates,basalt, and iron among many other mineral and rock compounds on its surface. The Curiosity Rover landed in Gale Crater because of its interesting geological features. One attractive feature is the alluvial fan (a deposit formed from a fast flowing stream as found on Earth) that appears to have at one time drained into the crater. The large mountain peak at the center of the crater, Aeolis Mons aka Mount Sharp, was also an appealing characteristic of Gale Crater. This enormous central peak rises above the surrounding rim. The layering of the strata is of particular interest to researchers. The rovers Sprit and Opportunity also discovered layered features on Mars, as well as many other interesting geological characteristics. Our fleet of spacecraft at Mars have discovered many things that were unexpected. However, some were inferred by scientists based on previous research. These features include craters, volcanoes, canyon systems, riverbeds, and caves.

victoria2_opportunity

Craters were expected to be found on the rocky surface of Mars, which they were.  Large craters tend to be obvious and long lasting.  Victoria_crater_from_HiRiseSmaller craters can be eroded by wind over long time periods and covered by Martian sand and dust.  Victoria Crater is one of the most beautiful features on Mars.  The Opportunity Rover spent approximately 2 Earth years (one Martian year) at the crater.  The crater is large, 730 meters wide.  Victoria Crater has scalloped edges with many alcoves and prominence’s. Endurance Crater was also visited by the Opportunity Rover for 180 sols (Martian days). This crater has very interesting layered sedimentary geology that was examined by Opportunity. The rover discovered there were differences in texture and sedimentary layering.This indicated that the lower layers were indeed older than the upper layers of rocks and soil.

The volcanoes were photographed early in our exploration of Mars due to their sheer enormity.   The most famous of all is Olympus Mons.  This is the largest volcano in the solar system rising nearly 22km (14mi) above the Martian surface.  Mount Everest is Earth’s tallest mountain, rising to a mere 29,029 ft 

Olympus_Mons_alt

(8.85km or 5.5mi) above the surface.  When comparing  Olympus Mons to Mount Everest it is easy to see how Olympus Mons dwarfs Mount Everest.  It has been said that Olympus Mons is so large that if you were standing on it, although it rises 14 miles in elevation, it would appear that you were standing on flat ground. 

The Tharsis Bulge is a region that hosts the large shield volcanoes on Mars, including Olympus Mons. There is a feature called the Hellas Basin which is diametrically opposed to the Tharsis Bulge.  The Hellas Basin is believed to be an ancient impact crater that was created by such a violent collision that it pushed out the Tharsis Bulge on the opposite side of the planet.  In close proximity to the Tharsis Bulge lies Valles Marineris.   It is theorized that the great Mariner Valley (named for the Mariner spacecraft that discovered it) is the result of tectonic fractures possibly form the same collision that formed the Hellas Basin and Tharsis Bulge.  Valles Marineris was also discovered early because it is so prominent on the equatorial region.  There are what appear to be dry riverbeds near the immense canyon system.

 Rivers, outflow channels, and runoff channels have been speculated and discussed widely through the years. There are thousands of images that show what seem to be riverbeds all over Mars. We are now confirming unequivocally that these channels were once a place where water flowed freely across the surface of the planet for extended periods of time.  The Curiosity Rover roved right into a riverbed within a few weeks of her mission.   This is an incredible confirmation by NASA as well as another step forward in the search for life on the Red Planet.

caves on marsA more recent geological discovery is the caves on Mars.  There is little known about the caves so far.  NASA would like to send a rover or a spelunking robot to explore the caves.  It is known that caves can go on for miles into the surface of a planet.    The caves on Earth are home to thousands, if not, hundreds of thousands of organisms as well as ample amounts of water.  We may find water in the caves on Mars.  This is a fascinating discovery because they could potentially be used for habitats when humans arrive on the surface of Mars. 
All of the discoveries we have made help scientists to piece together the geological history of the Red Planet.   There are many more exciting discoveries ahead.  ~OnToMars
To see images comparing the geological features of Mars compared to Earth please visit this link:  

 Images [NASA, JPL, Wikipedia]

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