'Plate Tectonics' Discovered on Mars--Found Nowhere Else Beyond Earth in Solar System
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August 12, 2012

'Plate Tectonics' Discovered on Mars--Found Nowhere Else Beyond Earth in Solar System

 

                    400px-Valles_Marineris_NASA_World_Wind_map_Mars

 

For years, many scientists had thought that plate tectonics existed nowhere in our solar system but on Earth. Now, a UCLA scientist has discovered that the geological phenomenon, which involves the movement of huge crustal plates beneath a planet's surface, also exists on Mars.

"Mars is at a primitive stage of plate tectonics. It gives us a glimpse of how the early Earth may have looked and may help us understand how plate tectonics began on Earth," said An Yin, a UCLA professor of Earth and space sciences and the sole author of the new research.

Yin made the discovery during his analysis of satellite images from a NASA spacecraft known as THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) and from the HIRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. He analyzed about 100 satellite images — approximately a dozen were revealing of plate tectonics.

Yin has conducted geologic research in the Himalayas and Tibet, where two of the Earth's seven major plates divide.* "When I studied the satellite images from Mars, many of the features looked very much like fault systems I have seen in the Himalayas and Tibet, and in California as well, including the geomorphology," said Yin, a planetary geologist.

For example, he saw a very smooth, flat side of a canyon wall, which can be generated only by a fault, and a steep cliff, comparable to cliffs in California's Death Valley, which also are generated by a fault. Mars has a linear volcanic zone, which Yin said is a typical product of plate tectonics.

"You don't see these features anywhere else on other planets in our solar system, other than Earth and Mars," said Yin, whose research is featured as the cover story in the August issue of the journal Lithosphere.

The surface of Mars contains the longest and deepest system of canyons in our solar system, known as Valles Marineris (image at top and bottom of the page--Latin for Mariner Valleys and named for the Mariner 9 Mars orbiter of 1971, which discovered it). It is nearly 2,500 miles long — about nine times longer than the Earth's Grand Canyon. Scientists have wondered for four decades how it formed. Was it a big crack in Mars' shell that opened up?

"In the beginning, I did not expect plate tectonics, but the more I studied it, the more I realized Mars is so different from what other scientists anticipated," Yin said. "I saw that the idea that it is just a big crack that opened up is incorrect. It is really a plate boundary, with horizontal motion. That is kind of shocking, but the evidence is quite clear.* "The shell is broken and is moving horizontally over a long distance. It is very similar to the Earth's Dead Sea fault system, which has also opened up and is moving horizontally."

The two plates divided by Mars' Valles Marineris have moved approximately 93 miles horizontally relative to each other, Yin said. California's San Andreas Fault, which is over the intersection of two plates, has moved about twice as much — but the Earth is about twice the size of Mars, so Yin said they are comparable.

Yin, whose research is partly funded by the National Science Foundation, calls the two plates on Mars the Valles Marineris North and the Valles Marineris South.

"Earth has a very broken 'egg shell,' so its surface has many plates; Mars' is slightly broken and may be on the way to becoming very broken, except its pace is very slow due to its small size and, thus, less thermal energy to drive it," Yin said. "This may be the reason Mars has fewer plates than on Earth."

Mars has landslides, and Yin said a fault is shifting the landslides, moving them from their source.

"I think so," he said. "I think the fault is probably still active, but not every day. It wakes up every once in a while, over a very long duration — perhaps every million years or more."

Yin is very confident in his findings, but mysteries remain, he said, including how far beneath the surface the plates are located.* "I don't quite understand why the plates are moving with such a large magnitude or what the rate of movement is; maybe Mars has a different form of plate tectonics," Yin said.

The rate is much slower than on Earth."* The Earth has a broken shell with seven major plates; pieces of the shell move, and one plate may move over another. Yin is doubtful that Mars has more than two plates.

"We have been able to identify only the two plates," he said. "For the other areas on Mars, I think the chances are very, very small. I don't see any other major crack."

Did the movement of Valles Marineris North and Valles Marineris South create the enormous canyons on Mars? What led to the creation of plate tectonics on Earth?*

Yin, who will continue to study plate tectonics on Mars, will answer those questions in a follow-up paper that he also plans to publish in the journal Lithosphere.

Valles Marineris stretches over 4000 km across Mars, mostly east-west just below the equator, as seen in this Viking 1 orbiter image mosaic below.

 

           600px-Mars_Valles_Marineris

The Daily Galaxy via UCLA

Comments

Any geological thermal sources cropping up on the surface of Mars could be used as power sources so try and combine first settlements with those of water source locations. Photosynthetic bacteria would be seeded at water spots, or greenhouse enclosed plants, to provide oxygen. Use Earth's polar and salt resistant bacteria for frozen water or salt habitat deposits

What about Ganymede? http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr161/lect/jovian_moons/ganymede.html The first hint of plate tectonics there had been uncovered by Voyager 2 in 1979.

I read the Ganymede link...

Not very convincing.

This needs follow up and peer review in order for us to accept such a claim. All too often we see these claims presented in the media then accepted without question by some people, only for the claim to slide into oblivion never to be heard of again.

Tectonics with only two plates doesn't make sense to me. Maybe there are more fault lines or plate boundaries, but hidden from view, or not visible from that distance. We will have to wait for a lot more information before we can make statements like the title of this article. Considering how many supposed scientific 'facts' about the cosmos have proved wrong in the last year alone, I would think that cosmologists and reporters would be very reluctant to present theory as statement, or are they not familiar with qualifying words like, 'perhaps', 'suggests', 'suppose', or 'hypothesise'? Yin's supposition is intriguing and should trigger some serious investigation into the nature of Mars' crust, but it is not yet even a theory, and certainly cannot be taken as a statement of fact.

Thank you and looking for more posts. I am really satisfied with this posting that you have given us.

Ummm.... You need to do better background Reaseach and get your acronyms correct! THEMIS stands for Thermal Imaging System! It is an instrument on the Mars Odyssey Mission and was built at ASU - http://themis.asu.edu/

If tectonic plates do exist on Mars, they will not be moving because Mars is an old and cold planet with no liquid core and no magnetic field. On Earth the tectonic plates move because the crust is thin and below is liquid magma, which cranks magnetic field as the earth spins.

It is too interesting why earth scientists ascribe uniqueness to 'earth'. If a theory of planetary evolution works it must be applied on every planet, obviously with the restrictions of composition, size, etc. Plate Tectonics for that case is limited to earth and assumed to have in one or two satellites in gaseous planetary orbits of solar system. But interestingly, only a very few in earth observes that the basics tenets of Plate Tectonic concept never passed even the first level of hypothesis testing. The felsic rocks (considered to represent continents) from ocean basins, deep roots of continental parts into mantle (from mantle tomography), equatorial bulging,southern hemispherical swelling and mantle protrusions along SSA-SWI, the AAD are a few examples to list out where 'plate concepts' fail, if ad hoc adjustments are not opted for. Approaching Mars, without any prejudice could help us to resolve at least a few of the theoretical crisis we experience with earth.
Interestingly, one could see a resemblance in the geometry of Earth and Mars and many of the surface features (hope our cameras on Mars are giving right pics). But theory making before understanding them by looking into simple similarities would not favour scientific growth.
biju


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