ESA Images Mars Largest Volcano
July 5, 2013

ESA Releases Detailed Images Of Mars’ Most Massive Volcano

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Recently released images from the European Space Agency's (ESA) Mars Express revealed new details of the largest known volcano in our solar system, Olympus Mons.

The inactive Martian volcano rises to approximately 22,000 feet above the surrounding plain, which is more than twice the height of Earth's 10,000-foot high Mauna Kea volcano. Like Mauna Kea, Olympus Mons is a shield volcano, with gently sloping sides that extend outward in all directions. However, Olympus Mons is different from other shield volcanoes because of its sharp escarpment that separates it from the surrounding plain.

Reaching 5.6 miles high in some places, the escarpment was formed during a series of cataclysmic landslides, resulting in debris being transported hundreds of miles away from the volcano, the space agency said. Lava flows skirt the base of the volcano, demarcated by a handful of pointed, flat-top blocks that were probably elevated during the series of collapses.

The color images released by ESA indicate a large system of overlapping lava flows - evidence of an active volcanic history. Scientists said when the lava flowed it spilled into the natural contours of the volcano and descended the escarpment to finally reach the surrounding plain. Flows that ended before reaching the escarpment formed rounded "tongues," as the lava solidified and came to a stop.

Some of the lava flows were guided by channel walls, while others flowed through lava tubes that were depicted in the ESA images.

The ESA recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Mars Express launch. Dubbed simply "Express" because of its rapid and streamlined development time, the spacecraft represents the ESA's first trip to another planet.

To mark the anniversary, the ESA released a series of new maps of the Red Planet in June. The Martian atlas showed the distribution of minerals caused by water, volcanic activity and weathering. The maps display Mars' ancient geological processes in a global context, the agency said.

The maps were created using ten years of data collected by the mineralogical mapper on the orbiting craft which uses the spectrum of reflected sunlight to analyze the Martian surface.

"The history of Mars is encoded in its minerals," said Alvaro Gimenez, ESAs Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. "These new global views, made possible thanks to the longevity of ESA's Mars Express mission, are helping us to unlock the secrets of 4.6 billion years of planetary evolution."

He added the maps could be used to "identify sites of special interest for future manned missions, helping to keep Europe at the forefront of planetary exploration."

As of June 2013, the Mars Express has mapped over 95 percent of the planet with a high-resolution camera. The craft has also captured pictures in stereo, resulting in 3D imagery of the surface and features like the Olympus Mons. The craft also utilizes ground-penetrating radar, which it uses to determine the vertical size of the polar ice caps.

"The decade-long observations by Mars Express of all aspects of the Martian environment are providing us with a truly global perspective on the history of the Red Planet, paving the way for the next generation of Mars exploration missions," said Olivier Witasse, ESA's Mars Express Project Scientist.