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Geology of Mars

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Mars as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope
Epoch J2000
Aphelion249,209,300 km
1.665861 AU
Perihelion206,669,000 km
1.381497 AU
Semi-major axis227,939,100 km
1.523679 AU
Orbital period686.971 day

1.8808 Julian years

668.5991 sols
Synodic period779.96 day
2.135 Julian years
Average orbital speed24.077 km/s
5.65° to Sun's Equator
Longitude of ascending node49.562°
Argument of perihelion286.537°
Physical characteristics
Equatorial radius3,396.2 ± 0.1 km[a][2]
0.533 Earths
Polar radius3,376.2 ± 0.1 km[a][2]
0.531 Earths
Flattening0.00589 ± 0.00015
Surface area144,798,500 km²
0.284 Earths
Volume1.6318 × 1011 km³
0.151 Earths
Mass6.4185 × 1023 kg
0.107 Earths
Mean density3.934 g/cm³
Equatorial surface gravity3.69 m/s²
0.376 g
Escape velocity5.027 km/s
Sidereal rotation
1.025957 day
24.62296 h[3]
Equatorial rotation velocity868.22 km/h
Axial tilt25.19°
North pole right ascension21 h 10 min 44 s
North pole declination52.88650°
Surface temp.
186 K227 K268 K[3]
−87 °C−46 °C−5 °C
Apparent magnitude+1.8 to −2.91[4]
Angular diameter3.5" — 25.1"[4]
Surface pressure0.7–0.9 kPa
Composition95.72% Carbon dioxide

2.7% Nitrogen
1.6% Argon
0.2% Oxygen
0.07% Carbon monoxide
0.03% Water vapor
0.01% Nitric oxide
2.5 ppm Neon
300 ppb Krypton
130 ppb Formaldehyde
80 ppb Xenon
30 ppb Ozone

10 ppb Methane

The geology of Mars, also known as areology (from Greek Ἂρης Arēs and -λογία -logia), refers to the study of the composition, structure, physical properties, history, and the processes that shape the planet Mars.


Elemental composition

Elements present on Mars include among others oxygen (O), iron (Fe), and silicon (Si), along with significant amounts of magnesium (Mg), aluminum (Al), sulfur (S), calcium (Ca) and titanium (Ti). The planet's distinctive red coloration is largely due to the oxidation of its surface iron. Recently Mars soil was found to contain ice trapped in minerals. It was also found to contain potassium (K), chlorine (Cl) and sodium (Na).[5]

Scientists have learned about the elemental composition of Mars from several sources. A number of space probes have landed on the planet; some were able to move around. The Viking program was the first to land two robots on Mars. The Pathfinder mission included Sojourner rover which analyzed rocks, as well as the soil. The Phoenix lander landed very far to the North. Two Mars Exploration Rovers have been crawling on the Martian surface for over 5 years so far. These probes carried instruments that analyzed the surface. We also have many actual samples of Mars in the form of meteorites that have made their way to Earth. These meteorites are called SNC's, for Shergottites meteorites, Nakhla meteorite, Chassigny meteorite.[6] Some orbiting space craft have instruments that can actually map the distribution of some chemicals.


Surface age map of Mars (NASA).

Crater density timeline

Studies of impact crater densities on the Martian surface allow us to identify three broad epochs in the planet's geological timescale, as older surfaces have many craters and younger ones have few.[7]The epochs were named after places on Mars that belong to those time periods. The precise timing of these periods is not known because there are several competing models describing the rate of meteor fall on Mars, so the dates given here are approximate. From oldest to youngest, the time periods are:

  • Noachian epoch (named after Noachis Terra): Formation of the oldest extant surfaces of Mars between 4.6 and 3.5 billion years ago. Noachian age surfaces are scarred by many large impact craters. The Tharsis bulge is thought to have formed during this period, with extensive flooding by liquid water late in the epoch.
  • Hesperian epoch (named after Hesperia Planum): 3.5 to 1.8 Ga BP. The Hesperian epoch is marked by the formation of extensive lava plains. Formation of Olympus Mons likely began during this epoch[8].
  • Amazonian epoch (named after Amazonis Planitia): 1.8 Ga BP to present. Amazonian regions have few meteorite impact craters but are otherwise quite varied. Lava flows on Mars continued during this period.

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The studying of craters is based upon the assumption that crater-forming impactors have hit the planet all throughout history at regular intervals, and there is no way to exactly date an area just based upon the number of impacts, only to guess that areas with more impacts must be older than areas with fewer impacts. For example this logic breaks down if a large number of asteroids had hit at once, or if there were long periods where few asteroids hit.

Mineralogical timeline

Based on recent observations made by the OMEGA Visible and Infrared Mineralogical Mapping Spectrometer on board the Mars Express orbiter, the principal investigator of the OMEGA spectrometer has proposed an alternative timeline based upon the correlation between the mineralogy and geology of the planet. This proposed timeline divides the history of the planet into 3 epochs; the Phyllocian, Theiikian and Siderikan.[9][10]

  • Phyllocian (named after the clay-rich phyllosilicate minerals that characterize the epoch) lasted from the formation of the planet until around 4000 million years ago. In order for the phyllosilicates to form an alkaline water environment would have been present. It is thought that deposits from this era are the best candidates to search for evidence of past life on the planet. The equivalent on Earth is much of the hadean eon.
  • Theiikian (named, in Greek, after the sulfate minerals that were formed), lasting until about 3500 million years ago, was a period of volcanic activity. In addition to lava, gasses - and in particular sulfur dioxide - were released, combining with water to create sulfates and an acidic environment. The equivalent on Earth is the eoarchean era and the beginning of the paleoarchean era.
  • Siderikan, from 3500 million years ago until the present. With the end of volcanism and the absence of liquid water, the most notable geological process has been the oxidation of the iron-rich rocks by atmospheric peroxides, leading to the red iron oxides that give the planet its familiar color. The equivalent on Earth is most of the archean all of the proterozoic and up to now.

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Colors =

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Surface chemistry

Mars' surface inside Victoria Crater, thought to be original (predating the meteorite impact which created the crater). Photo taken by NASA's Opportunity rover on sol 1341 (November 13, 2007) Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The surface of Mars is thought to be primarily composed of basalt, based upon the observed lava flows from volcanos, the Martian meteorite collection, and data from landers and orbital observations. The lava flows from Martian volcanos show that lava has a very low viscosity, typical of basalt.[11] Analysis of the soil samples collected by the Viking landers in 1976 indicate iron-rich clays consistent with weathering of basaltic rocks.[11] There is some evidence that some portion of the Martian surface might be more silica-rich than typical basalt, perhaps similar to andesitic rocks on Earth, though these observations may also be explained by silica glass, phyllosilicates, or opal. Much of the surface is deeply covered by dust as fine as talcum powder. The red/orange appearance of Mars' surface is caused by iron(III) oxide (Fe2O3) (rust).[12] Mars has twice as much iron oxide in its outer layer as Earth does, despite their supposed similar origin. It is thought that Earth, being hotter, transported much of the iron downwards in the 1,800 km deep, 3,200 °C, lava seas of the early planet, while Mars, with a lower lava temperature of 2,200 °C was too cool for this to happen.[12] While the possibility of carbonates on Mars has been of great interest to exobiologists and geochemists alike, there is little evidence for significant quantities of carbonate deposits on the surface.

One of the goals of potential NASA missions to the planet is to grow plants such as asparagus, green beans and turnips in the Martian soil, which, after some testing, had suggested Earth-like soil. These tests determined the soil was slightly alkaline and contained vital nutrients such as magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride, all of which are necessary for living things (as we know them) to grow. In fact, NASA previously reported that the soil near Mars' north pole was similar that found in backyard gardens on Earth where plants could potentially grow. However, in August, 2008, the Phoenix Lander conducted simple chemistry experiments, mixing Earth-water with Martian soil in an attempt to test its pH, and discovered traces of perchlorate, which is the oxidizing ion ClO4. Preliminary results from this second lab test suggest that produce planted in the soil may have to overcome a very harsh environment, one much less friendly to life than once believed. Further testing is necessary to determine how much perclorate exists in the Martian soil, how it formed, or if perhaps the soil sample was simply contaminated by emissions from Phoenix's burning fuel during landing.[13][14][15]

Magnetic field and internal structure

Although Mars today has no global-scale intrinsic magnetic field, observations have been interpreted as showing that parts of the planet's crust have been magnetized and that polarity reversal of its dipole field occurred when the central dynamo ceased, leaving only residual permanent crustal fields.[16][17] This Paleomagnetism of magnetically susceptible minerals has features very similar to the alternating bands found on the ocean floors of Earth. One theory, published in 1999 and re-examined in October 2005 with the help of the Mars Global Surveyor, is that these bands are evidence of the past operation of plate tectonics on Mars 4 Ga ago, before Mars' planetary dynamo ceased.[18] The magnetization patterns in the crust also provide evidence of past polar wandering, the change in orientation of Mars' rotation axis.[17][19]

Mars' magnetic field varies over its surface, and while it is mostly very small it can in places be locally as high as on Earth. It is possible to date the time when Mars' dynamo turned off. The large impact basins Hellas and Argyre, aged 4 Ga, are unmagnetised, so the dynamo would have to have turned off before then otherwise the molten rock would have remagnetised.[20] An alternative theory advanced by Benoit Langlois is that a lunar-scale object struck the northern hemisphere at a shallow angle and high latitude at about 4.4 Ga.[21] Computer models by Sabine Stanley show that this would have created a convection current powered dynamo in the southern hemisphere.[22]


Mars has approximately half the radius of Earth and only one-tenth the mass, which generates a surface gravity of 0.376 g, that is only about 38% of the surface gravity on Earth.


Current models of the planet's interior suggest a core region approximately 1,480 km in radius (just under half the total radius), consisting primarily of iron with about 15-17% sulfur. This iron sulfide core is partially or completely fluid, with twice the concentration of light elements that exists at Earth's core. The high sulfur content of Mars' core gives it a very low viscosity, which in turn implies that Mars' core formed very early on in the planet's history.

Crust and mantle

False colour view of a landslide in Zunil crater

The core is surrounded by a silicate mantle that formed many of the tectonic and volcanic features on the planet. The average thickness of the planet's crust is about 50 km, and it is no thicker than 125 km,[23] which is much thicker than Earth's crust which varies between 5 km and 70 km. A recent radar map of the south polar ice cap showed that it does not deform the crust despite being about 3 km thick.[24]


As a result of 1999 observations of the magnetic fields on Mars by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, it was proposed that during the first half billion years after Mars was formed, the mechanisms of plate tectonics may have been active, with the Northern Lowlands equivalent to an ocean basin on Earth. Further data from the Mars Express orbiter's High Resolution Stereo Camera in 2007 clearly showed the 'global crustal dichotomy boundary’ in the Aeolis Mensae region.[25]


File:History of water on Mars.jpeg

Ancient rivers - Modern gullies - and More Evidence of Water

The Viking Orbiters caused a revolution in our ideas about water on Mars. Huge river valleys were found in many areas. They showed that floods of water broke through dams, carved deep valleys, eroded grooves into bedrock, and traveled thousands of kilometers. Areas of branched streams, in the southern hemisphere, suggested that rain once fell.[6][26][27]

The images below, some of the best from the Viking Orbiters, are mosaics of many small, high resolution images. Click on the images for more detail. Some of the pictures are labeled with place names.

The high resolution Mars Orbiter Camera on the Mars Global Surveyor has taken pictures which give much more detail about the history of liquid water on the surface of Mars. Despite the many giant flood channels and associated tree-like network of tributaries found on Mars there are no smaller scale structures that would indicate the origin of the flood waters. It has been suggested that weathering processes have denuded these indicating the river valleys are old features. Higher resolution observations from spacecraft like Mars Global Surveyor also revealed at least a few hundred features along crater and canyon walls that appear similar to terrestrial seepage gullies. The gullies tended to be Equator facing and in the highlands of the southern hemisphere, and all poleward of 30° latitude.[28] The researchers found no partially degraded (i.e. weathered) gullies and no superimposed impact craters, indicating that these are very young features.

Another theory about the formation of the ancient river valleys is that rather than floods, they were created by the slow seeping out of groundwater. This observation is supported by the sudden ending of the river networks in theatre shaped heads, rather than tapering ones. Also valleys are often discontinuous, small sections of uneroded land separating the parts of the river.[29]

On the other hand, evidence in favor of heavy or even catastrophic flooding is found in the giant ripples in the Athabasca Vallis [1].

Liquid water

Mosaic shows some spherules partly embedded.

Liquid water cannot exist on the surface of Mars with its present low atmospheric pressure, except at the lowest elevations for short periods.[30][31] Recently, there has been evidence to support the popular belief that liquid water flowed on the surface in the recent past, with the discovery of gully deposits that were not seen ten years ago.[32][33]

Among the findings from the Opportunity rover is the presence of hematite on Mars in the form of small spheres on the Meridiani Planum. The spheres are only a few millimetres in diameter and are believed to have formed as rock deposits under watery conditions billions of years ago. Other minerals have also been found containing forms of sulfur, iron or bromine such as jarosite. This and other evidence led a group of 50 scientists to conclude in the December 9, 2004 edition of the journal Science that "Liquid water was once intermittently present at the Martian surface at Meridiani, and at times it saturated the subsurface. Because liquid water is a key prerequisite for life, we infer conditions at Meridiani may have been habitable for some period of time in Martian history". Later studies suggested that this liquid water was actually acid because of the types of minerals found at the location[34][35]. On the opposite side of the planet the mineral goethite, which (unlike hematite) forms only in the presence of water, along with other evidence of water, has also been found by the Spirit rover in the "Columbia Hills".

Photo of Microscopic rock forms indicating past signs of water, taken by Opportunity

On July 31, 2008, NASA announced that the Phoenix lander confirmed the presence of water ice on Mars,[36]as predicted on 2002 by the Mars Odyssey orbiter.

Polar ice caps

The Mars Global Surveyor acquired this image of the Martian north polar ice cap in early northern summer.

Both the northern polar cap (Planum Boreum) and the southern polar cap (Planum Australe) are believed to grow in thickness during the winter and partially sublime during the summer. Data obtained by the Mars Express satellite, made it possible in 2004 to confirm that the southern polar cap has an average of 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) thick slab of CO2 ice[37] with varying contents of frozen water, depending on its latitude; the polar cap is a mixture of 85% CO2 ice and 15% water ice.[38] The second part comprises steep slopes known as 'scarps', made almost entirely of water ice, that fall away from the polar cap to the surrounding plains.[38] The third part encompasses the vast permafrost fields that stretch for tens of kilometres away from the scarps.[38][39] NASA scientists calculate that the volume of water ice in the south polar ice cap, if melted, would be sufficient to cover the entire planetary surface to a depth of 11 metres.[40]

Ice patches

On July 28, 2005, the European Space Agency announced the existence of a crater partially filled with frozen water;[41] some then interpreted the discovery as an "ice lake".[42] Images of the crater, taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on board the European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft, clearly show a broad sheet of ice in the bottom of an unnamed crater located on Vastitas Borealis, a broad plain that covers much of Mars' far northern latitudes, at approximately 70.5° North and 103° East. The crater is 35 km wide and about 2 km deep.

The height difference between the crater floor and the surface of the water ice is about 200 metres. ESA scientists have attributed most of this height difference to sand dunes beneath the water ice, which are partially visible. While scientists do not refer to the patch as a "lake", the water ice patch is remarkable for its size and for being present throughout the year. Deposits of water ice and layers of frost have been found in many different locations on the planet.

Equatorial frozen sea

Surface features consistent with pack ice have been discovered in the southern Elysium Planitia. What appear to be plates of broken ice, ranging in size from 30 m to 30 km, are found in channels leading to a flooded area of approximately the same depth and width as the North Sea. The plates show signs of break up and rotation that clearly distinguish them from lava plates elsewhere on the surface of Mars. The source for the flood is thought to be the nearby geological fault Cerberus Fossae which spewed water as well as lava aged some 2 to 10 million years.[43]

Ancient coastline

A striking feature of the topography of Mars is the flat plains of the northern hemisphere. With the increasing amounts of data returning from the current set of orbiting probes, what seems to be an ancient shoreline several thousands of kilometres long has been discovered. One major problem with the conjectured 2 Ga old shoreline is that it is not flat — i.e. does not follow a line of constant gravitational potential. However a 2007 Nature article points out that this could be due to a change in distribution in Mars' mass, perhaps due to volcanic eruption or meteor impact — the Elysium volcanic province or the massive Utopia basin that is buried beneath the northern plains have been put forward as the most likely causes.[44] The Mars Ocean Hypothesis conjectures that the Vastitas Borealis basin was the site of a primordial ocean of liquid water 3.8 billion years ago.[45]

Geysers on Mars

Artist concept showing sand-laden jets erupt from geysers on Mars. (publishd by NASA); artist: Ron Miller.

The seasonal frosting and defrosting of the southern ice cap results in the formation of spider-like radial channels carved between the ground and 1 meter thick ice. Then, sublimed CO2 -and probably water- increase pressure in their interior producing geyser-like eruptions of cold fluids often mixed with dark basaltic sand or mud.[46][47][48][49] This process is rapid, observed happening in the space of a few days, weeks or months, a growth rate rather unusual in geology - especially for Mars.

Glacial phases

Perspective view of a 5-km-wide, glacial-like lobe deposit sloping up into a box canyon along the crustal dichotomy boundary on Mars.

A 2008 study provided evidence for multiple glacial phases during Late Amazonian glaciation at the dichotomy boundary on Mars.[50]


Olivine mineral (purple) in the Valles Marineris

Spectra from the NASA THEMIS probe have shown the possibility of the mineral olivine on Mars by looking for the characteristic infra-red radiation it emits. The discovery is interesting because the mineral, which is associated with volcanic activity, is very susceptible to weathering by water, and so its presence and distribution which can be obtained from satellite could tell us about the history of water on Mars.

Olivine forms from magma and weathers into clays or iron oxide. The researchers found olivine all over the planet, but the largest exposure was in Nili Fossae, a region dating from >3.5 Ga (the Noachian epoch). Another outcrop is in the Ganges Chasma, an eastern side chasm of the Valles Marineris (pictured).[51]

Impact crater morphology

Yuty impact crater with typical rampart ejecta

Crater morphology provides information about the physical structure and composition of the surface. Impact craters allow us to look deep below the surface and into Mars geological past. Lobate ejecta blankets (pictured left) and central pit craters are common on Mars but uncommon on the Moon, which may indicate the presence of near-surface volatiles (ice and water) on Mars. Degraded impact structures record variations in volcanic, fluvial, and eolian activity.[52]

The Yuty crater is an example of a Rampart crater so called because of the rampart-like edge of the ejecta. In the Yuty crater the ejecta competely covers an older crater at its side, showing that the ejected material is just a thin layer.[53]

The largest unambiguous impact crater is the Hellas Basin in the southern hemisphere. However, it appears that the Borealis Basin, covering most of the low-lying northern hemisphere, is also an impact crater.[2]

Major Geological Events

On February 19, 2008 an amazing geologic event was captured by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Images which captured a spectacular avalanche thought to be fine grained ice, dust and large blocks are shown to have fallen from a 2,300-foot (700 m) high cliff. Evidence of the avalanche are shown by the dust clouds rising from the cliff afterwards.[54] Such geological events are theorized to be the cause of geologic patterns known as slope streaks.

Slope streaks

When occurring near the top of a dune, dark sand may cascade down the dune leaving dark surface streaks -- streaks that might appear at first to be trees standing in front of the lighter regions.

A new phenomenon known as slope streaks has been uncovered by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. These features appear on crater walls and other slopes and are thin but many hundreds of metres long. The streaks have been observed to grow slowly over the course of a year or so, always beginning at a point source. Newly formed streaks are dark in colour but fade as they age until white. The cause is unknown, but theories range from dry dust avalanches (the favoured theory) to brine seepage.[55]

Mars Avalanche Photo Gallery

See also


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