According to Space.com, UCLA scientist An Yin has discovered that Mars has the beginning stages of plate tectonics. He has based his findings on data derived from NASA's Mars Odyssey satellite and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Findings from two NASA satellites
The Space.com story reports that the data that led to the findings came from THEMIS ( Thermal Emission Imaging System) on the Mars Odyssey and the HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Out of 100 hi-res images of the Martian surface, a dozen had indications of plate tectonics.
According to the Center for Educational Technologies, plate tectonics constitutes a theory developed in the 1960s and 1970s. It suggests that the outermost layer of the Earth consists of rigid plates that move about, pulling apart and crashing into each other. There are seven major plates -- the African, North American, South American, Eurasian, Australian, Antarctic, and Pacific plates -- as well as several minor plates, including the Arabian, Nazca, and Philippines plates. When plates collide, mountains,volcanoes, and earthquakes result. When plates diverge, rift valleys are created, such as the East Africa rift. Plates move only a few centimeters per year.
Features on Mars suggest tectonic activity
According to Yin, a number of features on Mars appear to have been created by plate tectonics, much like the Himalayas and California's Death Valley, Space.com reports. These include a series of volcanoes near the Olympus Mons and the Valles Marineris, the longest and deepest canyon in the solar system, nine times longer than the Grand Canyon on Earth.
Marsquakes still occurring
According to Space.com, Yin believes that plate tectonics are still occurring on Mars, albeit in a lower level and with fewer plates than are on Earth. That means that Marsquakes are likely occurring on the Red Planet, albeit only every few million years. However there are only two major plates on Mars, as opposed to the seven on Earth, which Yin called Valles Marineris North and Valles Marineris South, the movement of which likely created the Valles Marineris. There is less thermal energy in Mars to drive tectonic movement, though Yin suggests that new plates could be created as the plates move about and break apart.
Plate tectonics means life is more possible on Mars
According to an account of the discovery in TPM, Yin suggested that the existence of plate tectonics on Mars makes the existence of life, past or present, more likely on the Red Planet. This is because the phenomenon causes the recycling of elements necessary for life, such as carbon and water, between Mars' mantle and its atmosphere.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.