Geo016 - Exploration of Mars

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Geo016 / Exploration of Mars / (M) 3:00-5:20 / Lincoln Field 105 / Prof. James Head

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Paul Berry (03/10/04)

When I came into class and we began discussing the various landforms and geographical characteristics of Mars, I found myself trying to make comparisons to Earth. After a short time of learning more about the Martian planet's geography, I found that we can't really compare our own planet in any definite way. For example, the existence of tectonic plates, which Mars has a lack of boggled my mind. I though that it was very natural to have plates of some sort, even on barren ice planets (as I thought that even ice moved in gigantic sheets to some degree). Being from California, and being accustomed to random, frequent earthquakes, having tectonic plates is a way of life. I happen to live on the San Andreas fault, so knowledge of plates was made clear to me at a young age. This leads me to my question of how Olympus Mons and it's two neighbors came to be. I am sure that I am not the first person to ask this questions, and not having any experience in geology I know I am unable to give a definite answer. The most likely explanation that I can offer, however clumsy, is that it might have formed in a similar way to how an island is formed (one that doesn't break off and drift away from a landmass), when it rises up out of the seabed as pressure is relieved by forcing magma up to the surface. There is one idiosyncrasy in my evaluation though, in that I think tectonic plates are needed to do this. Is it possible that there was once so much pressure that a magma flow so powerful was forced to the surface, broke through the single plate encircling the planet and formed a mountain out of itself as it cooled? I think this is possible, but a planet much smaller than ours is unlikely to command such powerful volcanic activity when even the stronger Earth volcanoes such as Montesserat and Mt. St. Helen's have proportionally weaker strengths, despite their apparent strength to human observers.

The activity of Olympus Mons must have been incredible, not only on the ground but also up in the air. Many attributes of the Martian atmosphere can probably be traced back heavily to volcanic ash, and for such a large volcano, in proportion to the size of the planet, I doubt that when Olympus Mons first erupted, that it didn't cover the sky with an ash so thick and dark so as to not cover the entire planet in near darkness. This might also account for the rover's necessity to clean rocks before using the rock abrasion tool, as ash from Olympus Mons must have surely covered every possible landform. Another far reaching affect an eruption from the volcano might have had was on the winds, which although it is not a driving force, Olympus Mons certainly gave the wind a lot of volcanic ash to move around in addition to the already dusty ground that characterizes most of Mars.

For the longest time I really didn't think anything of the Nile River. It was just another river. When someone astutely informed me of its special nature, it immediately stumped me. It is the only river to flow from south to north, and shares this characteristic with no other known river. I instantly thought of this when the Northern Lowlands were described to me in detail, along with the ancient flow channels that appeared to dump into it, with notions of a large ocean. I want to conclude that this is unlikely because of the way that most Earth rivers function, but I catch myself trying to make assumptions and compare our planet with another. It is very possible that Martian rivers once flowed to the north, but if they did, where did the water go? To answer this question quantitatively, one must look to chemistry. Water exists in small amounts in the poles, but mainly underground, permanently frozen. This makes sense intuitively, because the water molecules will try to achieve the lowest possible energy and stay there. With surface temperatures reaching extremes in the highs and lows, stable equilibrium would be hard to come by on any part of the planet, especially the equatorial region (which might account for why the poles are so small and so far north and south). Existence in the atmosphere as a free gas would then be out of the question, since as a gaseous molecule water is very energetic, which all falls under the pretense that the water molecules would even be able to stay contained in the thin Martian atmosphere. All but one place is then available for the water, which is under the ground, as has already been determined. In fact, if the massive area that covers the northern lowlands did actually hold a large body of water at one time, it is conceivable that the water froze under the surface to cover an area with a surface radius only slightly smaller than the radius of the entire planet. Presuming that this is true, this might account for the lack of tectonic plate movement, or the fusing of any plates that might have existed, as the ice cooled the entire planet enough so as to halt any plate movement (and might also tell us why no volcanic activity has been observed for some time).

Focusing on issues more Earth-related, I greatly enjoyed the Bliny Night we had. It was amazing enough seeing all the NASA memorabilia, but to enjoy great food and sit and talk Russian politics and space-related issues with Dr. Krushev and Dr. Bazalevzky was a very real and memorable experience. I told various family members about the experience, on which they promptly commented that it was unlike anything they had been offered in their tenure, and was a unique experience that I should value. I agreed with them, and look forward to all future pursuits with zeal.


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