John C. Bridges
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Mars, which has a tenth of the mass of Earth, has cooled as a single lithospheric plate. Current topography gravity maps and magnetic maps do not show signs of the plate tectonics processes that have shaped the Earth’s surface. Instead, Mars has been shaped by the effects of meteorite bombardment, igneous activity, and sedimentary—including aqueous—processes. Mars also contains enormous igneous centers—Tharsis and Elysium, with other shield volcanoes in the ancient highlands. In fact, the planet has been volcanically active for nearly all of its 4.5 Gyr history, and crater counts in the Northern Lowlands suggest that may have extended to within the last tens of millions of years. Our knowledge of the composition of the igneous rocks on Mars is informed by over 100 Martian meteorites and the results from landers and orbiters. These show dominantly tholeiitic basaltic compositions derived by melting of a relatively K, Fe-rich mantle compared to that of the Earth. However, recent meteorite and lander results reveal considerable diversity, including more silica-rich and alkaline igneous activity. These show the importance of a range of processes including crystal fractionation, partial melting, and possibly mantle metasomatism and crustal contamination of magmas. The figures and plots of compositional data from meteorites and landers show the range of compositions with comparisons to other planetary basalts (Earth, Moon, Venus). A notable feature of Martian igneous rocks is the apparent absence of amphibole. This is one of the clues that the Martian mantle had a very low water content when compared to that of Earth.
The Martian crust, however, has undergone hydrothermal alteration, with impact as an important heat source. This is shown by SNC analyses of secondary minerals and Near Infra-Red analyses from orbit. The associated water may be endogenous.
Our view of the Martian crust has changed since Viking landers touched down on the planet in 1976: from one almost entirely dominated by basaltic flows to one where much of the ancient highlands, particularly in ancient craters, is covered by km deep sedimentary deposits that record changing environmental conditions from ancient to recent Mars. The composition of these sediments—including, notably, the MSL Curiosity Rover results—reveal an ancient Mars where physical weathering of basaltic and fractionated igneous source material has dominated over extensive chemical weathering.
Alexander T. Basilevsky
Lunar and planetary geology can be described using examples such as the geology of Earth (as the reference case) and geologies of the Earth’s satellite the Moon; the planets Mercury, Mars and Venus; the satellite of Saturn Enceladus; the small stony asteroid Eros; and the nucleus of the comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Each body considered is illustrated by its global view, with information given as to its position in the solar system, size, surface, environment including gravity acceleration and properties of its atmosphere if it is present, typical landforms and processes forming them, materials composing these landforms, information on internal structure of the body, stages of its geologic evolution in the form of stratigraphic scale, and estimates of the absolute ages of the stratigraphic units. Information about one body may be applied to another body and this, in particular, has led to the discovery of the existence of heavy “meteoritic” bombardment in the early history of the solar system, which should also significantly affect Earth. It has been shown that volcanism and large-scale tectonics may have not only been an internal source of energy in the form of radiogenic decay of potassium, uranium and thorium, but also an external source in the form of gravity tugging caused by attractions of the neighboring bodies. The knowledge gained by lunar and planetary geology is important for planning and managing space missions and for the practical exploration of other bodies of the solar system and establishing manned outposts on them.
M.A. Ivanov and J.W. Head
This chapter reviews the conditions under which the basic landforms of Venus formed, interprets their nature, and analyzes their local, regional, and global age relationships. The strong greenhouse effect on Venus causes hyper-dry, almost stagnant near-surface environments. These conditions preclude water-driven, and suppress wind-related, geological processes; thus, the common Earth-like water-generated geological record of sedimentary materials does not currently form on Venus. Three geological processes are important on the planet: volcanism, tectonics, and impact cratering. The small number of impact craters on Venus (~1,000) indicates that their contribution to resurfacing is minor. Volcanism and tectonics are the principal geological processes operating on Venus during its observable geologic history.
Landforms of the volcanic and tectonic nature have specific morphologies, which indicate different modes of formation, and their relationships permit one to establish their relative ages. Analysis of these relationships at the global scale reveals that three distinct regimes of resurfacing comprise the observable geologic history of Venus: (1) the global tectonic regime, (2) the global volcanic regime, and (3) the network rifting-volcanism regime. During the earlier global tectonic regime, tectonic resurfacing dominated. Tectonic deformation at this time caused formation of strongly tectonized terrains such as tessera, and deformational belts. Exposures of these units comprise ~20% of the surface of Venus. The apparent beginning of the global tectonic regime is related to the formation of tessera, which is among the oldest units on Venus. The age relationships among the tessera structures indicate that this terrain is the result of crustal shortening. During the global volcanic regime, volcanism overwhelmed tectonic activity and caused formation of vast volcanic plains that compose ~60% of the surface of Venus. The plains show a clear stratigraphic sequence from older shield plains to younger regional plains. The distinctly different morphologies of the plains indicate different volcanic formation styles ranging from eruption through broadly distributed local sources of shield plains to the volcanic flooding of regional plains. The density of impact craters on units of the tectonic and volcanic regimes suggests that these regimes characterized about the first one-third of the visible geologic history of Venus. During this time, ~80%–85% of the surface of the planet was renovated. The network rifting-volcanism regime characterized the last two-thirds of the visible geologic history of Venus. The major components of the regime include broadly synchronous lobate plains and rift zones. Although the network rifting-volcanism regime characterized ~2/3 of the visible geologic history of Venus, only 15%–20% of the surface was resurfaced during this time. This means that the level of endogenous activity during this time has dropped by about an order of magnitude compared with the earlier regimes.
Paul K. Byrne
Mercury, like its inner Solar System planetary neighbors Venus, Mars, and the Moon, shows no evidence of having ever undergone plate tectonics. Nonetheless, the innermost planet boasts a long record of tectonic deformation. The most prominent manifestation of this history is a population of large scarps that occurs throughout the planet’s cratered terrains; some of these scarps rise kilometers above the surrounding landscape. Mercury’s smooth plains, the majority of which are volcanic and occupy over a quarter of the planet, abound with low-relief ridges. The scarps and ridges are underlain by thrust faults and point to a tectonic history dominated by crustal shortening. At least some of the shortening strain recorded by the ridges may reflect subsidence of the lavas in which they formed, but the widespread distribution of scarps attests to a planetwide process of global contraction, wherein Mercury experienced a reduction in volume as its interior cooled through time.
The onset of this phenomenon placed the lithosphere into a net state of horizontal compression, and accounts for why Mercury hosts only a few instances of extensional structures. These landforms, shallow troughs that form complex networks, occur almost wholly in volcanically flooded impact craters and basins and developed as those lavas cooled and thermally contracted. Tellingly, widespread volcanism on Mercury ended at around the same time the population of scarps began to form. Explosive volcanism endured beyond this point, but almost exclusively at sites of lithospheric weakness, where large faults penetrate deep into the interior. These observations are consistent with decades-old predictions that global contraction would shut off major volcanic activity, and illustrate how closely Mercury’s tectonic and volcanic histories are intertwined.
The tectonic character of Mercury is thus one of sustained crustal shortening with only localized extension, which started almost four billion years ago and extends into the geologically recent past. This character somewhat resembles that of the Moon, but differs substantially from those of Earth, Venus, or Mars. Mercury may represent how small rocky planets tectonically evolve and could provide a basis for understanding the geological properties of similarly small worlds in orbit around other stars.
David A. Rothery
The history of volcanism on Mercury is almost the entire history of the formation of its crust. There are no recognized tracts of intact primary crust analogous to the Moon’s highland crust, probably because the density of Mercury’s iron-poor magma ocean was insufficient to enable crystalized silicate phases to float. Mercury’s surface consists of multiple generations of lavas. These were emplaced, rather like terrestrial “large igneous provinces” or LIPs, in their greatest volumes prior to about 3.5 Ga. Subsequently, erupted volumes decreased, and sites of effusive eruption became largely confined to crater floors. Plains lava surfaces younger than about 3.7 Ga have become scarred by sufficiently few impact craters that they are mapped as “smooth plains.” The older equivalents, which experienced the inner solar system’s “late heavy bombardment,” are mapped as intercrater plains. There is no consensus over whether plains with superimposed-crater characteristics that are intermediate between the smooth plains and intercrater plains end members can be consistently mapped as “intermediate plains.” However, any subdivision of the volcanic plains for mapping purposes arbitrarily splits apart a continuum.
The volcanic nature of Mercury’s smooth plains was ambiguous on the basis of the imagery returned by the first mission to Mercury, Mariner 10, which made three fly-bys in 1974–1975. Better and more complete imaging by MESSENGER (in orbit 2011–2015) removed any doubt by documenting innumerable ghost craters and wrinkle ridges. No source vents for the plains are apparent, but this is normal in LIPs where effusion rate and style characteristically flood the vent beneath its own products. However, there are good examples of broad, flat-bottomed valleys containing streamlined islands suggesting passage of fast-flowing low viscosity lava.
Although the causes of the mantle partial melting events supplying surface eruptions on Mercury are unclear, secular cooling of a small, one-plate planet such as Mercury would be expected to lead to the sort of temporal decrease in volcanic activity that is observed. Factors include loss of primordial heat and declining rate of radiogenic heat production (both of which would make mantle partial melting progressively harder), and thermal contraction of the planet (closing off ascent pathways).
Lava compositions, so far as can be judged from the limited X-ray spectroscopic and other geochemical measurements, appear to be akin to terrestrial komatiites but with very low iron content. Variations within this general theme may reflect heterogeneities in the mantle, or different degrees of partial melting.
The cessation of flood volcanism on Mercury is hard to date, because the sizes of the youngest flows, most of which are inside <200-km craters, are too small for reliable statistics to be derived from the density of superposed craters. However, it probably continued until approximately 1 Ga ago.
That was not the end of volcanism. MESSENGER images have enabled the identification of over a hundred “pits,” which are noncircular holes up to tens of km in size and up to about 4 km deep. Many pits are surrounded by spectrally red deposits, with faint outer edges tens of km from the pit, interpreted as ejecta from explosive eruptions within the pit. Many pits have complex floors, suggesting vent migration over time. Pits usually occur within impact craters, and it has been suggested that crustal fractures below these craters facilitated the ascent of magma despite the compressive regime imposed by the secular thermal contraction. These explosive eruptions must have been driven by the violent expansion of a gas. This could be either a magmatic volatile expanding near the top of a magma conduit, or result from heating of a near-surface volatile by rising magma. MESSENGER showed that Mercury’s crust is surprisingly rich in volatiles (S, Cl, Na, K, C), of which the one likely to be of most importance in driving the explosive eruptions is S.
We do not know when explosive volcanism began on Mercury. Cross-cutting relationships suggest that some explosion pits are considerably less than 1 Ga old, though most could easily be more than 3 Ga. They characteristically occur on top of smooth plains (or less extensive smooth fill of impact craters), and while some pits have no discernible “red spot” around them (perhaps because over time, it has faded into the background), there is no known example of part of a red spot peeping out from beneath the edge of a smooth plains unit. There seems to have been a change in eruptive style over time, with (small volume) explosions supplanting (large volume) effusive events.