Sunday, November 19, 2006

Mars geology

The surface of Mars is thought to be primarily composed of basalt, based upon the Martian meteorite collection and orbital observations. There is some evidence that a portion of the Martian surface might be more silica-rich than typical basalt, perhaps similar to andesitic stones on Earth, though these observations may also be explained by silica glass. Much of the surface is deeply covered by iron(III) oxide dust as fine as talcum powder.

Photo of microscopic rock forms indicating past signs of water, taken by OpportunityThere is conclusive evidence that liquid water existed at one time on the surface of Mars. Key discoveries leading to this conclusion include the detection of various minerals such as hematite and goethite which usually only form in the presence of water.

Although Mars has no intrinsic magnetic field, observations have revealed that parts of the planet's crust have been magnetized. This magnetization has been compared to alternating bands found on the ocean floors of Earth. One theory, published in 1999 and reexamined 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. Polar wandering could also explain this paleomagnetism.

Current models of the planet's interior infer a core region approximately 1,480 km in radius, consisting primarily of iron with about 15-17% sulfur. This iron sulfide core is partially fluid, with twice the concentration of light elements that exists at the Earth's core. The core is surrounded by a silicate mantle that formed many of the tectonic and volcanic features on the planet, but now appears to be inactive. The average thickness of the planet's crust is about 50 km, and it is no thicker than 125 km.

The geological history of Mars is split into three broad epochs:

Noachian epoch (named after Noachis Terra): Formation of Mars to between 3800 and 3500 million 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): 3500 million years ago to 1800 million years ago. The Hesperian epoch is marked by the formation of extensive lava plains.
Amazonian epoch (named after Amazonis Planitia): 1800 million years ago to present. Amazonian regions have few meteorite impact craters but are otherwise quite varied. Olympus Mons formed during this period along with lava flows elsewhere on Mars.
An alternative series of classifications, based on data from OMEGA Visible and Infrared Mineralogical Mapping Spectrometer on board the Mars Express orbiter has also been put forward.