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Extreme Surface Features Of Mars: Olympus Mons, Tallest Volcano In The Solar System!

by Dani Johnson

May 3, 2013

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Donate With Mars being our closest accessible neighbor, it's no surprise that we have had so many missions to study the red warrior. The six active missions to Mars include the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Mars Exploration Rover (Opportunity), and the Mars Odyssey orbiter. We already have two really cool missions planned for the near future, and surely more will come as technology advances. As a consequence, we know more about Mars's geography than any other planet in the Solar System besides our own; thankfully so, because the features on this barren landscape are some of the most extreme geological features known to man.

One of the most striking features on Mars' surface is Olympus Mons.

A computer-generated view of Olympus Mons.
Credit: NASA/MOLA Science Team/ O. de Goursac, Adrian Lark

Olympus Mons (Latin for Mount Olympus, named after the home of the greek gods and goddesses) is not only the tallest volcano on Mars or just taller than any volcano on Earth, but this colossal beast is the largest volcano that we know of in the entire Solar System! Found in the Tharsis Montes region near the Martian equator, Olympus Mons towers 25 km (16 mi) above the surrounding plains at its peak and stretches 624 km (374 mi) across; that's more than 3 times higher than our very own Mount Everest and covers about the same area as the state of Arizona. The cliff that surrounds the edge of this shield volcano reaches 6 km (4 mi) high in some places, and while some parts end abruptly in tall escarpments others slope more gently to the ground level. Shield volcanoes erupt out viscous lava that travels quite far and creates a new sheet of volcanic rock every time it erupts. That's why these types of volcanoes are usually wide and flat, resembling a warrior's shield. At the summit of this towering behemoth sits six overlapping calderas that span 85 km (53 mi) at its widest point and drops 3 km (1.86 mi) at its deepest point. A caldera is the crater that is caused when, after an eruption, the magma chamber collapses in on itself. A famous example on Earth is the caldera in Yellowstone National Park, which would fit almost snugly inside of the calderas on Olympus Mons.

The below image is to scale. Imagine if you could drive across Olympus Mons it would take more than 6 hours going an average of 60 mph. That's like traveling across the state of Arizona, except I imagine that the traffic wouldn't be so crowded on mars.

Olympus Mons compared to Arizona.
Credit: NASA

The below image is a close-up of the caldera at the summit of Olympus Mons. Imagine standing on the edge of the caldera looking down its 3 km drop and gazing across the 85 km span. That's guaranteed to offer a dramatic view.

Caldera at the summit
Credit: NASA

The tallest volcanoes in the Tharsis Montes region are so tall that their tops escape the wind that creates the dust storms that swirl around on the ground like Martian dancers. The image below can only hint at how tall this massive volcano is. It's actually so tall that if you were to stand at any flanking point around the rim and look up you wouldn't be able to see the top.

This image also illustrates the asymmetry around the edge; you can see how the left side slopes pretty gently to ground level with the front right side ends quite abruptly.

Oblique view of Olympus Mons, from a Viking image mosaic overlain on MOLA altimetry data, showing the volcano's asymmetry.
Credit: NASA/MOLA Science Team

The image below also illustrates how the edges of the volcano have formed. You can see the areas round 1, 2 and 3 o'clock and 6, 7 and 8 o'clock blend into the surrounding land while the other areas are still stacked pretty high.

THEMIS daytime infrared image mosaic of Olympus Mons
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Arizona State University


Extra Content:

Chris Hadfield is at it again! Have you ever wondered what it would be like to wring out a wet washcloth in the ISS? Well, wonder no more, just watch this video.

Hadfield is one of six residents currently living and working on board theInternational Space Station. He is joined by two NASA astronauts and three Russian cosmonauts. NASA's Tom Marshburn and Russia's Roman Romanenko will fly back to Earth with Hadfield in May after six months on board the orbiting outpost.

by Dani Johnson

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