Geological Investigation of the Planet Mars

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  1. Introduction

Mars is the fourth planet from the Sun and the second-smallest planet in our solar system. Iron oxide is rife on the surface of Mars, and therefore it is rightly called the ‘Red Planet.’ Mars is the planet, besides Earth, that has attracted the highest level of human curiosity, not only because it has similar characteristics of the Earth such as eccentricity, orbital inclination, seasonality, and some Earth-like geomorphology (e.g., Carr, 1980; Faure and Mensing, 2008; Barlow, 2008), but because Mars was thought for a long time to harbor an alien civilization (Hoyt, 1976). The planet has undergone different geological processes and modifications over time such as impact cratering, volcanism, fluvial, aeolian activities, etc. The imprints of these geological processes are present on the martian surface as evident from morphology and mineralogy extracted from the remote sensing data of different spacecraft missions. Determining the relationship between different exposed units and stratigraphy allows an analyst to reconstruct the geological and environmental history (as well as the processes involved in shaping the surface) of Mars (Golder, 2013). The presence of sinuous channels, large outflow channels, and shorelines (oceanic or lacustrine) suggest that the planet has substantially experienced periods with large quantities of surface water (e.g., Carr, 1979; Carr, 1996; Head et al., 1999; Carr and Head, 2003; Irwin et al., 2004; Fassett and Head, 2008). The martian geological timescales are divided into three major epochs: the Noachian, the Hesperian, and the Amazonian (e.g., Hartmann and Neukum, 2001; Nimmo and Tanaka, 2005). These epochs have their distinctive characteristics in terms of dominant geological processes involved and their absolute ages are determined from crater counting or superposition techniques (e.g., Tanaka et al., 1992). The Noachian surfaces are the basement materials of the rugged and heavily cratered surface. The Hesperian surfaces involve the base of the ridged materials whereas the Amazonian surfaces are smooth moderately cratered plain materials and polar deposits (e.g., Scott and Carr, 1978; Tanaka, 1986; Tanaka et al., 1992).

Studying Mars adds to the knowledge about the earlier history of the solar system. The surface of Mars is the blueprint of its earlier history. Mars has been a major spacecraft destination since the early days of space exploration (Barlow, 2008). Mars has formed during the same time (~4.56 Ga) as the solar system (e.g., Carr, 1980; Faure and Mensing, 2008). Like other terrestrial planets, e.g., Earth, Mars has gone through three formation stages: formation of kilometer-sized planetesimals, the formation of planetary embryos, and collisional formation of larger planets (e.g., Canup and Agnor, 2000; Chambers, 2004). The ongoing space mission investigation and future exploration are focused on assessing whether Mars had harbored any kind of life form as well as will it support life forms in future (e.g., MER, 2013; Jarrel, 2015). Study of Mars demands details on thermophysical, morphological, stratigraphic, and mineralogical characterization. Combining morphological, thermophysical, and mineralogical information allows ascertaining promises on landforms and climate of early Mars. Over the past few decades, the surface of Mars has been studied using information from orbital spacecraft, telescopes, and in-situ lander and rovers. However, orbital spacecraft datasets are the most used data covering the planet at global scales. Moreover, orbital data are the reconnaissance information for the future manned missions or rover missions (e.g., Mars 2020) to the surface of Mars. The characterizations of the martian surfaces are accomplished using orbital data of visible (VIS), near-infrared (NIR), shortwave infrared (SWIR), and thermal infrared (TIR) data. The prominent sensors for deriving these orbital data are the most recent mission of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) mission on boards the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE; McEwen et al., 2007), the Context Camera (CTX; Malin et al., 2007), and the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM; Murchie et al., 2007) instruments. The European Space Agency (ESA) operated the Mars Express (MEx) mission which carried the instruments of the High Rise Stereo Camera (HRSC; Neukum et al., 2004) and The Observatoire pour la Minéralogie, l’Eau, les Glaces et l’Activité (OMEGA; Bibring et al., 2004). The 2001 Mars Odyssey mission on boards The Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS; Christensen et al., 2004) whereas the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) mission carried the instrument payloads the Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES; Christensen et al., 2001), the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC), and the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA; Smith et al., 2001). In this research, orbital datasets were used for characterizing the surficial geology of different parts of Mars e.g., Siloe Patera in Arabia Terra and Hargraves crater in Nili Fossae area.

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On Mars, few areas received substantial attention for the future exploration of the rover and manned missions because of their astrobiological significances. The region of Northwest Isidis, hereafter NW Isidis, is one of the prominent interests in planetary exploration. NW Isidis is one of the most studied areas of Mars over the past decades (e.g., Salvatore et al., 2018). Jezero crater, the final site for Mars 2020 rover mission, is in the NW Isidis area (Goudge et al., 2017). The area is home to the Nili Fossae which is a suite of grabens and likely the result of crustal fracture associated with the formation of the Isidis basin (e.g., Wichman and Schultz, 1989; Schultz and Frey, 1990; Salvatore et al., 2018). Jezero crater has a diameter of ~45 km which hosts two inlet channels of deltaic remnants with an outlet channel, and contains hydrated minerals i.e., phyllosilicates (e.g., Fassett and Head, 2005; Ehlmann et al., 2008; Ehlmann et al., 2009; Schon et al., 2012; Goudge et al., 2015). An approximately 2500 km2 area named as North Eastern Syrtis, hereafter NE Syrtis, located just south of the Jezero crater and has a remarkable mineralogical diversity as identified using visible and near-infrared (VNIR) spectroscopy (e.g., Mangold et al., 2007; Mustard et al., 2009; Ehlmann and Mustard, 2012; Quinn and Ehlmann, 2014; Bramble et al., 2017; Salvatore et al., 2018). One of the study areas of the present research i.e., Hargraves crater is in the Nili Fossae region of NW Isidis. Hargraves crater is home to a dune field of barchan and barchanoids dunes as seen with visible images. The Mars Global Digital Dune Database (MGD3) (e.g., Hayward et al., 2007Hayward et al., 2014) delineated the dune fields at Hargraves crater but did not include individual dunes and their geometry and morphologies. The delineation of dune fields in MGD3 was prepared manually through visual photo-interpretation from the THEMIS imagery at 100 m/pixel spatial resolution, including digitized dune parameters and mapped dune slipface orientations. However, the manual digitizing of the dune parameters from low-resolution THEMIS images is a very tedious and time-consuming task. Moreover, the outline of the dune field delineated by MGD3 is not accurate as seen from the higher resolution data (the details and maps are given in the corresponding chapter). Thus, an auto/semi-automated method with higher resolution images e.g., CTX at ~6 m/pixel are more efficient to maximize the extraction of valuable geomorphological information of the martian dune fields. The present study employs a semi-automated object-based image analysis (OBIA) technique to extract dunes at Hargraves crater as a test case of OBIA application and validation. A validated and accurate result renders the applicability of the OBIA method on the entire surface of Mars. Besides identifying dunes, the study analyzes the thermal infrared (TIR) spectral responses of the surface dune materials for characterizing the constituent materials of the dune field. The project has been titled “Semi-Automated Identification and Thermal Infrared Response of Dunes Materials at Hargraves Crater, Mars”.

The second project is aimed at resolving the disputed geological history of Siloe Patera in the Arabia Terra region. Siloe Patera is in heavily cratered Arabia Terra region and has a debated geological history. The abundance of layered ejecta suggests that the region has been developed through explosive volcanism. However, the absence of nearby source vents for repeated eruptions, necessary for layered ejecta formation, suggests an alternative explanation of the presence of possible supervolcano complexes in the region (Michalski and Bleacher, 2013). The existing study of Michalski and Bleacher (2013) suggested seven irregularly shaped volcanic constructs or supervolcanic caldera complexes including Siloe Patera, Eden Patera, etc. Siloe Patera has a set of nested craters that resemble an impact crater like other typical craters on the entire martian surface or other planetary bodies. However, absence of direct evidence of impact ejecta around its structure, and the absence of a central uplift and a raised or overturned rim do not support the impact crater origin (details of the geological characteristics of the study area are given in the corresponding chapter). Siloe Patera has a confused geologic history among planetary researchers; whether it was formed as an impact crater versus supervolcano caldera. This study, therefore, aimed at resolving these issues from the analyses of thermal infrared (TIR) and near-infrared (NIR) data. Having the specific sensitivity of TIR and NIR spectra in analyzing the martian surface, utilizing a single dataset may mislead the conclusion. Simultaneous use of NIR and TIR data can render a robust and complete scenario of Siloe Patera. The study result reveals the geological history of Siloe Patera and more broadly the north-eastern part of Arabia Terra region. The project is titled “NIR-TIR Spectral Investigations of Siloe Patera on Arabia Terra, Mars”.

1.1.            Research objectives:

Since the study is comprised of two different projects in two different areas, the objectives of the study are also divided into two different sections:

1.1.1           Semi-Automated Identification and Thermal Infrared Response of Dune Materials at Hargraves Crater, Mars

 

 

a)       Delineating individual dunes using a semi-automated object-based image analysis technique in a quick and accurate fashion.

b)      Validating the objected based image analysis method for further investigation on the martian studies.

c)       Updating existing the Mars digital dune database (MGD3) for a more detailed understanding of the martian surface and its atmospheric mechanisms at the local scale.

d)      Identifying the grain-size distribution of constituent dune materials from the thermal inertia measurements.

e)       Explaining compositional (e.g., mineral abundances and bulk-silica content) characteristics of the dune materials and inferring the source provenance of the dune materials.

 

1.1.2          NIR-TIR Spectral Investigations of Siloe Patera on Arabia Terra, Mars

a)       Interpreting surficial geology of Siloe Patera at Arabia Terra from visible and near-infrared (VNIR) and thermal infrared (TIR) data.

b)      Resolving, in specific, the debated geological history of Siloe Patera and broadly the history of northeastern Arabia Terra.

c)       Determining the thermal inferred (TIR) spectral units and their characteristics in the study areas for the analyzing surface geology.

d)      Analyzing mineral composition and bulk-silica content of the surface materials to come up with geological history.

1.2.             Significance of the study

Applying the relatively newer approach of object-based image analysis for identifying dune features at Hargraves crater is the main significance of the first project. Since the existing dune database was prepared from the lower resolution THEMIS images through manual photo interpretation and, therefore, is less detailed and less accurate (as seen from higher resolution data), and more time demanding in dune parameters identification. This research uses a newer method of object-based image analysis technique with higher resolution CTX dataset aiming to lessen effort in dune identification and to render more detailed information about dune parameters. The project makes a new database for the dunes and their geometric parameters at Hargraves which (the same method) can be applied on the entire martian surface to produce a more detailed dune database at the global scale. The study also determines the grain-size distribution of the dune materials at Hargraves crater. The grain-size distribution of dune materials helps in characterizing sedimentary environment present and understanding the sediment transport dynamics of an area. Finally, the study identifies the mineral composition of the dune materials for understanding mineral distribution in constituent dune materials at Hargraves crater. Identification of mineral composition helps to constrain the evolution, history, and sources of sediment supply for a dune field. Combining all these analyses help to characterize the nature of the dune field and source of constituent dune materials at a local scale.

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The key significance of the second project is to resolve the debated geological history of Siloe Patera. Determining the surface materials characteristics helps to understand the geological history of an area. The present research constrains the characteristics of surface materials in the study area by combining the investigations of spectral units, bulk-silica content, colorized nighttime IR overlain daytime IR mosaic, and thermal inertia characteristics. The information for these analyses was derived from the thermal-infrared (TIR) images from the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) sensor. Minerals are blueprints of past surface processes, environment, and climate, and therefore, identifying minerals provides insight about the geological history. In this study, a mineral index map from near-infrared (NIR) data of the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) image was used to identify mineralogy of surficial materials at Siloe Patera. Combining the analysis of the findings resolve the debated geological history of Siloe Patera; providing evidence on whether it is an impact crater verses supervolcanic caldera or any other probable origin and its subsequent geologic processes responsible for the formation, evolution, and modifications. The results help not only to determine the geologic history of Siloe Patera but also gives an idea of the geologic history of the broader Arabia Terra region.

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