Categories: GeologyMarsvolcanoes

You Can See the Spot Where Lava Broke Through the Wall of a Martian Crater and Began Filling it Up

At a fundamental level, Mars is a volcanic planet. Its surface is home to the Solar System’s largest extinct volcano, Olympus Mons, and another trio of well-known volcanoes at Tharsis Montes. And those are just the highlights: there are many other volcanoes on the surface. Though that volcanic activity ceased long ago, the planet’s surface tells the tale of a world disrupted and shaped by powerful volcanic eruptions.

It’s difficult to imagine what Mars would’ve been like when Olympus Mons was active. The same goes for the Tharsis Montes trio. We may never know, but thanks to HiRISE, we can try to piece together some of the volcanic events that shaped Mars.

Olympus Mons and Tharsis Montes were the headliners in Mars’ ancient volcanic drama, and we learned of their existence first, thanks largely to NASA’s Mariner 9 spacecraft. In fact, they were spotted by ground observers long before that because they were visible when they protruded above global dust storms. But the surface of Mars is also dotted with other evidence of volcanism.

This Mariner 9 image of Ascraeus Mons is one of the first images to show that Mars has large volcanoes. Image Credit: By NASA/JPL – JPL Photojournal, Public Domain,

There are massive lava flows and extensive lava plains on the planet. In fact, about half of Mars’ surface is covered in volcanic material, though much of it has been further shaped by other processes over time. Most scientists think that the volcanic activity ended about 500 million years ago, while some think the planet may still be somewhat active.

<Click to Enlarge> This topographic map of Mars from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) shows how Olympus Mons and the trio of volcanoes at Tharsis Montes dominate the Martian surface. Other volcanoes and lava flows dot the planet’s surface. Image Credit: By NASA / JPL / USGS – and, Public Domain,

Recently, the HiRISE (High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) team released images of a crater on Mars shaped by ancient lava flows. The crater has a clearly-visible channel through the rim where lava flowed. A short narrated video explains some of what happened and some of the questions scientists have around the feature.

The volcanic drama played out at this one crater is just a tiny paragraph in the story of Mars’ volcanism. Martian volcanism spanned billions of years, from the Noachian over 3.7 billion years ago up to the current period, the Amazonian. Volcanic activity on Mars may have come to an end only 500 million years ago; not long in geographic terms.

Volcanic activity goes to the heart of what Mars is. Mars and Earth are very similar to each other in many geological aspects. They’re both differentiated, meaning that they’re composed of distinct layers. Their cores are made of dense materials that sank to the center of the planets in their early, molten days, while lighter material remained near the surface. The pair of planets were shaped by many of the same magma-based processes.

Earth and Mars are both differentiated bodies, meaning they’re made up of different layers of material with different densities. The more dense material has sunk to the cores. We know a lot more, however, about Earth’s interior than we do about Mars’. NASA’s InSight lander is on Mars right now, probing the planet’s interior to learn more. Image Credit: Earth, left: By Kelvinsong – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Mars, right: NASA

The difference lies in what happens after an eruption of magma or a lava flow. Earth has large lava formations that have flowed over the surface, called Large Igneous Provinces (LIPs). Earth’s atmosphere and biosphere hide the evidence of these LIPs after a period of time. But on Mars, ancient formations are still visible. Due to the planet’s inactivity, the evidence is kind of locked in place.

Another view of the crater and the lava breach. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/UofA

Both water and lava flowed over the Martian surface in the past. Both are gone now, but the evidence has been preserved. Eventually, scientists may be able to piece together Mars’ history more completely, but for now, it’s one crater at a time.


Evan Gough

Recent Posts

27 to 78 cm of sea Level Rise Could be Locked in From Melting Greenland ice Caps

Recent climate research, published in the Nature Climate Change journal has confirmed that melting icecaps…

4 hours ago

Underground Liquid Water Detected on Mars? Maybe not

New research from Cornell University shows that radar reading from Mars' South Pole region may…

10 hours ago

LICIACube Sends Home Images of the DART Impact and the Damage to Dimorphos

The Light Italian CubeSat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube) has returned a series of close-up…

12 hours ago

After Getting Slammed by DART, Asteroid Dimorphos has Grown a Tail

More images and details keep coming in about the asteroid intentionally smashed by NASA’s Double…

13 hours ago

Gaze Down Into the eye of Hurricane Ian, Seen From Orbit

NASA and NOAA satellites -- as well as astronauts on the ISS -- captured some…

1 day ago

Scientists Have Been Underestimating the Asteroid That Created the Biggest Known Crater on Earth

Ancient impacts played a powerful role in Earth's complex history. On other Solar System bodies…

1 day ago