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Mars Valles Marineris

Mars Valles Marineris (Space)

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Valles Marineris (Latin for Mariner Valleys, named after the Mariner 9 Mars orbiter of 1971–72 which discovered it) is system that runs along the Martian east of the Tharsis region. At more than 4,000 km long, 200 km wide and up to 7 km deep, the Valles Marineris rift system is larger than any of Earth's largest canyons, and is the largest known canyon in the solar system.

Valles Marineris is located along the equator of Mars, on the east side of the Tharsis Bulge, and stretches for nearly a quarter of the planet’s circumference. The Valles Marineris system starts in the west with the Noctis Labyrinthus; proceeding to the east are Tithonium and Ius chasmata, then Melas and Ophir chasmata, then Coprates Chasma, then Ganges, Capri and Eos chasmata; finally it empties into an outflow channel region containing chaotic terrain that ends in the basin of Chryse Planitia. Most researchers agree that Valles Marineris is a large tectonic "crack" in the Martian crust that formed as the crust rose in the Tharsis region to the west, and was subsequently widened by erosional forces. However, near the eastern flanks of the rift there appear to be some channels that may have been formed by water or carbon dioxide.

Formation

There have been many different theories about the formation of Valles Marineris that have changed over the years. Ideas in the 1970 (49 years ago) were erosion by water or thermokarst activity, which is the melting of permafrost in glacial climes. Thermokarst activity may contribute, but erosion by water is not very likely because liquid water cannot exist in most current Martian surface conditions, which typically experience about 1% earth’s atmospheric pressure and a temperature range of 148 to 310 kelvins. Another hypothesis by McCauley in 1972 (47 years ago) was that the canyons formed by withdrawal of subsurface magma. Around 1989 (30 years ago) Tanaka and Golombek proposed a theory of formation by tensional fracturing. The most agreed upon theory today is that Valles Marineris was formed by rift faults like the East African Rift Valley, later made bigger by erosion and collapsing of the rift walls. One source of this erosion, proposed by Nick Hoffman is decompression of the Noctis Labyrinthus carbon dioxide aquifer. As carbon dioxide is decompressed it turns from a solid to a fluid/gas and can travel at great velocities through the thin atmosphere of Mars.

Because Valles Marineris is thought to be a large rift valley, its formation is closely tied with the formation of the Tharsis Bulge. The Tharsis Bulge was formed from the Noachian to Late Hesperian period of Mars. Tharsis was formed in three stages, appropriately named one, two and three. Stage one of the Tharsis construction consisted of a combination of volcanism and isostatic uplift; soon, however, the volcanism loaded the crust to a point at which the crust could no longer support the added weight of Tharsis, leading to widespread grabens in the elevated regions of Tharsis. Stage two consisted of more volcanism and a loss of isostatic equilibrium; the source regions of the volcanism no longer resided underneath Tharsis, creating a very large load. Finally, the crust failed to hold up Tharsis and the radial fractures, like Valles Marineris, formed. Stage three mainly consisted of more volcanism. The crust, having already reached its failure point, just stayed in place and the younger volcanoes formed. Tharsis volcanism occurred at a very low viscosity magma, forming shield volcanoes similar to the Hawaiian Island chain, but, because there are no active plate tectonics on Mars, the hotspot activity kept loading the same spot over and over, creating some of the biggest volcanoes in the solar system, including the biggest: Olympus Mons. Laser altimetry (Mars Global Surveyor) of the region suggests that this area is situated over former seafloor crust, implying that some magmaphreatism may have occurred after the creation of the rift.


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