I prefer the title of The Dragon’s Tales’ link post to EurekAlert!’s “The 2 faces of Mars”. The suggestion that the topographical differences between Mars’ two hemispheres can be explained in terms of a southern hemisphere impact is new, and apparently plausible. As the EurekAlert! report on the paper concludes, the environment created by this impact would have been very hostile to young life.
The two hemispheres of Mars are more different from any other planet in our solar system. Non-volcanic, flat lowlands characterise the northern hemisphere, while highlands punctuated by countless volcanoes extend across the southern hemisphere. Although theories and assumptions about the origin of this so-called and often-discussed Mars dichotomy abound, there are very few definitive answers. ETH Zurich geophysicists with Giovanni Leone are now providing a new explanation. Leone is the lead author of a paper recently published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
Using a computer model, the scientists have concluded that a large celestial object must have smashed into the Martian south pole in the early history of the Solar System. Their simulation shows that this impact generated so much energy that it created a magma ocean, which would have extended across what is today’s southern hemisphere. The celestial body that struck Mars must have been at least one-tenth the mass of Mars to be able to unleash enough energy to create this magma ocean. The molten rock eventually solidified into the mountainous highlands that today comprise the southern hemisphere of Mars.
In their simulation, the researchers assumed that the celestial body consisted to a large degree of iron, had a radius of at least 1,600 kilometres, and crashed into Mars at a speed of five kilometres per second. The event is estimated to have occurred around 4 to 15 million years after the Red Planet was formed. Mars’ crust must have been very thin at that time, like the hard, caramelised surface of a crème brûlée. And, just like the popular dessert, hiding beneath the surface was a liquid interior.
When the celestial object impacted, it added more mass to Mars, particularly iron. But the simulation also found that it triggered strong volcanic activity. Around the equator in particular, numerous mantle plumes were generated as a consequence of the impact, which migrated to the south pole where they ended. Mantle plumes are magma columns that transport liquid material from the mantle to the surface.
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It has become increasingly clear to Giovanni Leone that Mars has always been an extremely hostile planet, and he considers it almost impossible that it ever had oceans or even rivers of water. “Before becoming the cold and dry desert of today, this planet was characterised by intense heat and volcanic activity, which would have evaporated any possible water and made the emergence of life highly unlikely,” asserts the planet researcher.