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date: 21 October 2020

Evolution of the Martian Crust

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.