Plate Tectonics? Scientist Unearths Massive Crystal Plates Under Surface of Mars

By Anthony Smith on August 10, 2012 2:54 PM EDT

Mars
Mars (Photo: wikipedia)

Sure, you've all probably heard of earthquakes-- especially those of us science fans who live in Los Angeles-- but chances are you've probably never heard of a Mars-quake.

That is, until today.

For many years now, scientists believed that plate tectonics-- that is, the divergence, convergence, and general quake-causing grinding of massive plates in our planet's mantle-- occurred only on Earth. However, a scientists from the University of California has recently discovered massive crystal plates under the surface of Mars; proving that the geological phenomenon of plate tectonics also exists on Mars, too.

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Looks like we're not as alone as we thought, at least when it comes to terrifying quakes.

"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," contended An Yin, USCLA professor of Earth and space sciences and, it should be noted, the sole author of the study.

Yin discovered the crystal plates under Mars during his extensive analysis of satellite imaging from THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms), a NASA Spacecraft barely larger than its name. He also made use of the HIRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera mounted on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Of the approximately 100 satellite images Yin analyzed, about a dozen revealed the existence of Martian plate tectonics.

"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.

Illustrating his point, he explained that he found structures on Mars analogous to a canyon wall, which can only be generated by a fault line, as well as a very steep precipice comparable to those found in California's Death Valley, which were also created by fault lines. FInally, he points to the existence of a Martian linear volcanic zone, which Yin believes is in keeping with the by-products of plate tectonics.

"You don't see these features anywhere else on other planets in our solar system, other than Earth and Mars," stated Yin, whose research will be appearing in the science journal Lithosphere.

He continued: "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. 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."

And what about Mars-quakes? Does Yin think those exist?

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

Yin's findings are proof that just because you're breaking new ground doesn't mean it always has to be on earth.

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